by Peyman Pejman
(IPS) BAGHDAD --
Mohammed Ali is a shy 10-year-old girl. Sitting in her school principal's office in Baghdad, she tried to explain why she missed school last Saturday.
"I was scared. They said they were going to explode the school. I did not want to come," she told IPS.
Caught between recognizing the danger, and being too young to know who might want to harm her, all she could say a few days after the "threatening day" was that she liked her school and wanted to keep coming.
She was not the only one to miss school that day. Only 20 of the 408 primary and secondary students showed up, said the principal Yasmine Sobhi Amin.
Rumors had circulated in earlier days that groups opposed to the coalition forces were going to target schools in Baghdad as part of a Ramadan offensive.
Ministry of Education officials say three or four schools received written threats. "The rest closed because of the widespread rumors, not actual threats," says Hassanein Mualla, special advisor to the minister.
Rumor or reality, there is little doubt that schools have become the latest battleground in the physical and psychological war between the U.S.-led coalition forces and Iraqi police on one hand, and insurgent groups opposed to them on the other.
In the past two weeks five Baghdad schools have been damaged by explosions. The schools were not the target but the fact that bombs were placed so close to them indicates a disregard for their safety in the growing resistance to the Western occupation.
Half a dozen bombs placed inside or just outside schools have been neutralised in Baghdad in the past couple of weeks, according to coalition officials.
Security at schools has increasingly become an issue in recent weeks. Many Iraqis want the coalition forces to restore security, but they are less than enthusiastic about placing armed U.S. soldiers outside school doors.
There are not enough Iraqi policemen to do the job either. That means schools seek emergency coalition security help when there is a specific threat.
The few Iraqi policemen on duty do help. "If it was not for the Iraqi policemen, all students would be sitting at home," Principal Amin said. "Parents are quite concerned about the security at school."
Physical security is not the only issue. Schools as a psychological battlefield for the future of Iraq is perhaps a more daunting problem facing coalition officials.
"For 35 years Saddam went the extra mile to brainwash the kids," says Dr. Hend Rassam, education advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "This was one of his ways to change the society. Books were filled with his pictures, his speeches and his philosophy."
After toppling Saddam, coalition officials began targeting schools and children as much as Saddam did -- in a different way.
Among the first decisions by CPA head L. Paul Bremer was to order a revision of textbooks. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were asked to reprint school textbooks without pictures of Saddam, or any references to him.
But a month into the new school year, at least half the students do not have their new books. Many parents have been pushed into buying old books for their children at prices that put extra hardship on meagre family budgets in a time of financial and political uncertainty.
A review committee set up by the education ministry has been asked to examine textbooks in subjects such as history to see if changes might be needed. Others argue that that curriculum revision is part of a bigger problem that will take time.
"Changing the curriculum is very essential," says Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of anti-Saddam opposition groups. "It is a huge task that goes under de-Baathification. It is not just the question of removing Baathist officials from educational positions but also removing the ideology."
In line with that approach, the ministry issued a directive this week saying all school principals should encourage students to come to school even in the face of a physical threat to themselves and the schools.
"We are looking at the background of all principals to make sure they are not pro-Saddam," says an education ministry official. "If they encourage students to skip classes, that would play into the hands of the pro-Saddam people and Baathists."
The ministry is now drawing up a list of the principals who cancelled classes on Saturday. "We will talk with them, and if this continues they will be removed from their positions," the official adds.
That attitude does not sit well with some parents.
"If they start punishing teachers and principals because they want to protect our kids, then there is no difference between this government and the previous one," says one parent.
November 7, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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