The recent upsurge in violence in Baghdad has affected nearly every aspect of life in the Iraqi capital. The city's schools are no exception. They are rarely guarded, leaving parents and teachers to worry that they represent an easy "soft" target for terrorists looking to mount more suicide attacks against Iraqi civilians.
Baghdad, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) A music lesson is under way at the Shahid Kamel Shibib primary school in central Iraq. The children look cheerful, but the teachers say it has been hard not to feel uneasy since four suicide attacks on 27 October left at least 36 people dead - the vast majority Iraqi civilians. Two schoolchildren were among those killed.
Tamara Kathem Abd al-Munem, the school's headmaster, told RFE/RL: "[The] problem in my school is that we are afraid of bombing, and life is very dangerous, and what can I do? My school - my [staff] and my children - are afraid, very afraid."
Al-Munem said her staff had been enthusiastic about beginning a new era in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The school and its textbooks have been cleared of all pictures and praise of the deposed Iraqi leader. But this has had an unexpected drawback - al-Munem said several of her teachers have received threatening letters warning them to stop "collaborating" with the U.S. administration. Now she fears her school will be targeted by supporters of the former regime.
Throughout Baghdad, parents accompany their children to and from school, and many classrooms are increasingly empty. At Shahid Kamel Shibib, there are 400 pupils between the ages of 6 and 12, and only a handful of unarmed guards to protect them. Al-Munem said she is desperate for a way to defend her school. "I want weapons," she said. "I want some soldiers, some soldiers in my school. We want that and some weapons. We have no weapons and no guns."
Adavya al-Kabaysi is an inspector from the Iraqi Ministry of Education. She said she visits several schools a day and that the majority of them have the same complaint - no armed guards and growing security concerns.
She said the mounting violence in Baghdad has led many Iraqis to stop sending their children to school. The sound of small explosions and gunfire have become commonplace in the city, but al-Kabaysi said even this is now enough to send pupils into a panic. She said she herself fears the worst when she sees an unfamiliar person enter a school building. Still, she said, everything is in God's hands. "We are not scared. We have faith," she said. "What is destined [for us] we will accept."
It is a stance the Ministry of Education appears to subscribe to itself. There are no roadblocks on the street leading to the ministry's headquarters, and guards allow cars to park within meters of the building, sometimes searching vehicles for explosives only after several minutes.
Education Minister Alaa Aldeen Abd al-Sihib al-Alwan told RFE/RL the minister is aware of the reports of teachers receiving threats but that he has "no idea how serious the threats are." He said he is doing what he can to improve school security, but added it is not a question for the Education Ministry alone. "[Its] the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior, its the responsibility of the schools themselves, its the responsibility of the local police and the responsibility of the community as a whole," he said.
"We are doing our very best. We have recruited a number of guards. We cannot recruit guards for all schools, but we are doing our best to identify high-risk schools." The education minister said steps are also being taken to assure the guards are given weapons.