Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Insurgent Threats Stop Sunni Schooling

Schools in the Sunni triangle close following a series of death threats against pupils and teachers.
By Haidar Radhi

November’s Coalition-led attack on the troubled city of Fallujah is continuing to have serious knock-on effects on neighbouring towns. Many schools in the area have been closed for weeks following threats by insurgents to kill anyone working with the authorities - including teachers.

When the fight for Fallujah began in early November, schools in Latifiyah, Yusifiyah and Mahmudiyah, three neighbouring towns located south of Baghdad in the notorious Sunni triangle, received leaflets telling them to close or face the consequences. Classes were suspended the following day.

“The mujahedin threatened us and said we had to close the school to show our support for the fighters in Fallujah,” explained Anwar Ismail, headmaster of a primary school in the area. “This area is controlled by armed groups so it’s not a threat we took lightly. Our schools have no security or protection.”

Amin Abdul Hadi, headmaster of another primary school in the area, tells a similar story of intimidation. “A week ago, the mujahedin set up a checkpoint near our school. They beat any drivers who were listening to songs in their cars and told them to listen to religious lectures instead, so as to learn how to oppose the occupiers.

“They were terrifying the students, so I closed the school – I thought that would be the best way to protect the children and my staff.”

While many teachers and pupils were angered by the threats, they say they have no choice but to obey. Many feel they are increasingly becoming part of a conflict they had wanted no part of.

“Around 400 students aren’t getting an education and 15 teachers are sitting at home with nothing to do because of the mujahedin. What good does that do?” asked headmaster Ismail. “The mujahedin in our area say that whoever works with the government or the Americans is a criminal and must be killed.

“To preserve your life, you have to sign a ‘repudiation paper’ stating that you have stopped working for the government. If you do that, then obviously you have to give up your job.”

With rebel fighters still effectively in control of many areas within the Sunni triangle, ordinary Iraqis’ frustration with the situation is growing.

“The government and the Coalition forces have to put an end to this,” said Omaima Mahmood, a primary school teacher. “We are constantly at risk of being bombed or mortared anyway, and now we have an additional direct threat against us. The mujahedin stood outside my school to force us to close, firing warning shots in the air to show they meant business.”

Khalaf Mohammed, a farmer in Latifiyah, believes people need to take a stand against intimidation, “Closing the schools is a bad move. Education has to keep going. We’re just giving in to the mujahedin’s propaganda that they are capable of affecting normal life in Iraq.

“Ultimately, Bush and Blair have to sort this out. Our kids need to be educated.”

Even where headmasters have decided to take the risk and keep their schools open, some pupils and teachers are too afraid to attend.

“When my family heard that [Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi’s followers are killing teachers, they decided to keep me at home till it gets sorted out,” said teacher Maisaa Jasim. “I stopped going to work at the end of November.”

Latif Kareem, a local contractor, has decided to keep his child at home. “I stopped my kid going to school when I heard about the risk, because I know these guys can put their threats into practice,” he explained. “Last week, I saw them in Mahmudiya, dressed in black, storming a mobile phone shop. They grabbed three people, then let two of them go and took the third away with them.

“As they drove off, they were shooting rounds into the air. No one has seen the guy since.”

Like many of the people IWPR spoke to, Kareem had more stories of insurgent attacks on ordinary Iraqis, “The other day, we found the body of a man, dumped in the street with a piece of paper in his mouth reading, ‘This is the fate of every spy and agent working with the National Guard’.”

With such stories being repeated throughout communities in the area, getting pupils and teachers back to school will be a near-impossible task without a serious improvement in the security situation.

The education ministry, for its part, is powerless. “We are aware of the situation,” stated one official who refused to be named. “We are talking with the minister and trying to find a solution.”

Haidar Radhi al-Moosawi and Ali Marzook are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.