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Schools Reopen in Iraq


U.S. officials working on the reconstruction of Iraq called for schools to reopen Saturday, but not all were ready to receive students. Many schools were damaged during the war or during the days of looting that followed. Teachers are spending their first day trying to clean up the mess.

The sound of children's laughter fills the courtyard of Amana Bent Whaab school.

Principal Khalida al Qubaisi says only about 20 students showed up when the school opened at eight in the morning, all dressed in the best clothes. Many parents are still afraid to let their children go off without them. But word spread quickly, and by mid-morning more than 100 had appeared.

"I sent my assistants to the teachers to bring them to school," she said. "I sent my assistants also to the parents' houses to bring the children, and if it is important, I will go myself."

Mrs. Qubaisi has been running the primary school for 14 years. Under Saddam Hussein, she says, her teachers were restricted in what they could talk about with the children.

"Even the compositions, we were obliged to give them certain titles, certain subjects about Saddam Hussein," said Khalida al Qubaisi. "Now, I held a meeting with the teachers, and told them to give the pupils very different titles and subjects, whatever they want, to let them learn."

The principal says that during Saddam's rule, she was careful not to complain even to her own staff. "I wouldn't talk or speak, because I was afraid one of the teachers would be a spy, and if I said a word, he would convey this word to one of Saddam's regime," she said. "So, I was silent. All the time I was silent."

No more. Mrs. Qubaisi says that, for her, the nightmare is over.

The first thing she did before school opened, she says, was to rip Saddam Hussein's picture from the first page of all her textbooks.

"I am very happy to see my friends and to talk with them," confessed Principal al Qubaisi.

Farah, 12, says she did not see any of her friends during the war, and is glad for their company again. What do they talk about?

"We talk only about the war, the shooting, the bombing, the airplanes and the tanks, and where we hide," said Farah.

Farah wants to be a computer engineer. Under Saddam Hussein access to computers was very limited. Access to the Internet was banned.

The scene at Babel Secondary School For Girls is very different.

Teachers have spent the past 10 days cleaning up the mess left by looters, who stole most of the books, desks, air conditioners, bathroom sinks and toilets, even the ceiling fans, doorknobs and light switches.

Principal Nuria Hatem is furious.

"First of all, we can't get girls back to school, because the school is not safe yet," she said. "Also, the door was damaged and destroyed by a U.S. tank."

Mrs. Hatem says that what was not stolen was destroyed, including the science laboratory and its brand new equipment. Now, it is mostly rubble, with cracked glass test tubes and broken microscopes littering the floor.

"This is not a school. It's only a ruin," she said.

School files and student exam papers are strewn around the darkened hallway outside. The light fixtures are missing. So is the central power switch.

One parent asks if is safe for her 17-year-old daughter to return to school, as the principal has asked, to help clean it. She is afraid there may be weapons hidden inside, like other schools where Saddam's military had stockpiled ammunition.

"Is it safe? Don't you think American forces must come and search the place before we bring our children? This is what I want," she said. "I can't let my daughter come here, and clean glass and these things, and I don't know what's in here. She's my eldest and my only girl. I'm not ready to sacrifice her here."

Principal Nuria Hatem says she wants her young students to make a new start, but that will take more than sweeping up the past.

She says the education system must be revised and textbooks changed to correct the warped view of the world she says Saddam's regime imposed on Iraqis for generations.

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