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Iraqi Schools Hit by Insurgency

Threats against schools, teachers and students shut down at least 65 schools.
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Primary school teacher Shayma Abdulla's body tensed as she read the leaflet that her students had found in the schoolyard.



"We will blow up schools that continue the flag-raising ceremony," it read.



Abdullah, a mathematics teacher at al-Nur primary school in Baghdad's al-Qadisiya neighbourhood, was shocked and worried. But she had to maintain her composure to calm down the panicked children, who were shouting that the school would be blown up.



The students left school for ten days, and later only attended for one or two hours per day. The school was never attacked after the threat in April, but the episode left everyone on edge.



"I worried every time I went to school," said Abdullah. "I can't understand why schools were targeted, unless they want to prevent the children from learning and push the country back to an era of ignorance and backwardness."



Iraqi students are taking their final exams in June - for many in Baghdad it will be the first time they have attended school in months - with increased protection by security forces under orders from the new ministerial council.



Schools in the capital's volatile neighbourhoods and its suburbs faced a violent school year in which 765 teachers and 1,750 students were killed during school hours, according to lieutenant colonel Mohammed Salin, security director for the ministry of education. At least 65 schools were attacked over the same period, he reported.



Schools are guarded but have been targeted by extremists since shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. According to education officials, bomb threats against schools climbed after the Samarra bombing in February, when sectarian tensions rose sharply. Schools in mixed neighbourhoods became daily targets, as part of an apparent effort to fuel sectarian tensions, halting the studies of many students.



Bombs were planted inside or close to schools, and teachers - particularly sports instructors and English-language teachers working outside of school hours as translators for companies, other organisations and the military - were targeted by extremists.



"The terrorists' goal is to stop the wheel of education from turning in the country," said Karim al-Waili, director-general of general education in the education ministry. "They want to sink the country into complete ignorance."



Wasan Abdul-Rahman, a 27-year-old mother, said her daughter's teacher was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in front of the school. The incident traumatised 10-year-old Abir.



"Abir came home terrified, with blood on her clothes," said Abdul-Rahman. "She is in a terrible psychological state and refuses to return to school."



The situation is particularly bad for schools in Baghdad districts with high murder and displacement rates such as Dora, Ghazaliya, Amiriya, Dawudi and Jamia.



"They threatened my school twice, so the headmaster asked us to stay at home," said Amir Adnan, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Dora primary school.



Adnan said the children were given their books and told to study at home, on their own, because of safety concerns.



"It's hard to understand the [text books] alone, especially because fifth grade is really hard," he said.



Students have also fled with their families to safer provinces, or left Iraq.



Maysa Mohammed, a teacher at al-Baraka primary school in Ghazaliya neighbourhood, said about 30 per cent of the school's students left this year. The government estimated that 100,000 families are internally displaced.



Waili said each school has between two and four guards. But, he said, most patrol the front gate rather than the entire school.



He said the government next year wants to increase the number of guards and have already increased police patrols, which, said Waili, "to some extent have reduced number of attacks".



Zaineb Naji is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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