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Iraq: Schools Struggling With Security, Curriculum, And Salary Challenges

Several months remain until the end of the academic year in Iraq, but schools, many of which reopened last weekend, are far from being fully functional. In addition to the cost and effort of rebuilding schools damaged in the U.S.-led war, Iraqi teachers and students are now facing security concerns and major changes in their curriculum, RFE/RL reports from Baghdad.

Baghdad, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A month after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraqi leader's presence is still felt in the capital, often in unexpected places.

"Long live Saddam Hussein!" Guests to the fourth-grade classroom at Baghdad's Ibn Khateb primary boys school are still welcomed by this traditional greeting. Twelve-year-old Mustafa explains why.

"We used to love him [Hussein] because he was our leader. He protected our nation. He didn't want occupation, and we still love him," Mustafa says.

Ibn Khateb's headmaster and teachers listen to Mustafa and shake their heads in frustration. They say they are struggling with how to tell students the truth about Iraq's past and what happened during the U.S.-led war. They say they want to protect the students' fragile minds and gradually introduce children to the new postwar realities.

"I can't do anything with that. Time will make them forget. Now their families should be the first school and explain to them what happened in our country," Ibn Khateb's headmaster says.

Despite security concerns and problems with looting, schools have reopened throughout Iraq after being closed for six weeks due to the U.S.-led invasion.

Portraits of a smiling Hussein have disappeared from their traditional place above blackboards in every classroom. Lessons related to Hussein and the history of the former ruling Ba'ath Party have been cut. Textbooks featuring Hussein's picture, which include chapters dealing with his regime, are still being used, however, until new ones can be printed.

Many other tasks remain to be tackled, and there is an atmosphere of uncertainty at the school.

The headmaster says only around 80 boys out of 600 have so far returned to class. Security concerns are keeping some students from attending. Weapons and ammunition have been found in some schools, and parents say it is not safe for their children to walk the streets.

Although all of Ibn Khateb's 21 teachers have returned, in addition to security concerns they also say they fear they won't be paid.

A few blocks away, the 900 students and 33 teachers at the Shaheed Hammoudi secondary boys school are facing the same challenges.

The headmaster says his immediate goals are convincing parents to send their children back to school; how to readjust the curriculum in the remaining weeks of the academic year; how to organize an annual examination after the six-week interruption; and where to get money to pay teachers.

He says there are meetings every day at the newly re-established Education Ministry, but that many of these questions still do not have answers.

One of the biggest challenges Iraqi primary and secondary schools are facing is how best to re-evaluate a curriculum so permeated by the ideology of the former regime and the cult of personality surrounding Hussein.

History teachers, in particular, are wrestling with the difficult task of how to properly teach students about what happened in Iraq during the past 30 years of Ba'ath Party rule.

"[This is a] black period, a black period. It should be forgotten. This is the regime's history. Of course, we put in facts, as should be followed. History nowadays is science. Of course, these facts should be taught in order to know what's good and what's bad, what's right and what's wrong," Malik, a history teacher at Shaheed Hammoudi, says.

Frank Dall, director of the Washington-based Creative Associates International, which has been chosen to help Iraq's education system get back on its feet, says $170 million in aid will be provided in the next three years to restructure Iraq's school system. The group says its goal is to get every Iraqi child back in school by 1 October.

But Dall says he believes that issues such as how to present a new curriculum to students should be left to the Iraqis themselves: "I think curriculum is a national issue, a philosophical issue. It should be ultimately left to an elected government, as it is in most countries. It's nothing that can be imposed on anybody. But you can do a number of transitional things. I think one of the things we are looking at the moment is to edit the existing books and to expurgate them -- that is, to remove any offensive ideological materials from the books."

Although he finds it difficult to break the habit of chanting Hussein's name in public, 12-year-old Mustafa admits that when he and his classmates are out of school, they tear up pictures of Hussein from their books.

"Now we are seeing [Hussein's] acts and crimes. We have started to suspect him. Step by step, we will forget him, and we will chant, 'Long Live the Motherland!' " Mustafa says.

In an effort to prove the transformation is already under way, the students try to sing the Iraqi national anthem in unison.