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

Schools Hit by Intimidation Campaign

Extremists threaten teachers and students who take Saturday off.
By Haidar al-Moosawi

The Iraq interim government's decision in February to extend the Friday weekend to include Saturday has led to a climate of fear in schools south of Baghdad where religious fundamentalists have threatened teachers and students with beheading if they take off a day associated with the Jewish sabbath.

Cabinet ministers decided to extend the weekend to Saturday rather than Thursday to allow Iraqis to do business with the outside world four, rather than three, days a week.

While most Iraqis are happy to have Saturday off, insurgents in Latifiyah and the adjacent neighborhoods of Yusifiyah and Mahmudiyah have warned that schools refusing to boycott the holiday would be targeted.

Mahmood Aziz, 42, headmaster of the al-Uruba School, said the threats are gruesome and unambiguous. He has been told by insurgents that he will be killed if he adheres to the government's decision, “They threatened us against introducing the holiday. They personally told me that they would behead me, raise my severed head on the flagpole and cut me into pieces in front of the students. I don't know why the government doesn't severely oppose them. I am not willing to lose my life and be a scapegoat.”

Ibrahim Majeed, 44, headmaster of the Saqar Quraish School, agreed that the choice is clear and the risk too great, “I've made Thursday a holiday instead of Saturday so I don't lose my life or my students’ lives. The government is completely absent here. We are at the mercy of the insurgents.”

Suha al-Dulaimi, 29, a teacher who survived one extremist attack after defying their demand, says she won't risk her life any more, “The insurgents shot me in the leg because I enjoyed the holiday on Saturday. I won’t go to school again because I don't want to lose my life. It is not the first time they've threatened us. They've killed many people who didn't comply with their threats.”

Even young students are being targeted. Saif Ahmed, an 11-year-old primary school student, said, “The insurgents said they would kill us all if we didn't come to school on Saturday. They said they would kidnap and behead us, they would consider us traitors. They said Saturday is the Jewish holiday.”

An official from the ministry of education responsible for schools in Latifiyah, Ahmed Kamil, said there was little the ministry could do about the campaign of intimidation. He said the problem isn't the holiday, but the insurgency, “We know Latifiyah is part of the triangle of death, it is full of insurgents who support the criminal [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi. We are waiting for the government to eliminate these terrorists.”

A police officer, who declined to give his name out of fear that he might be targeted by the insurgents he is working to capture or kill, said the government needs to be more aggressive, “The local police backed by the American forces have carried out many operations and we’ve arrested more than forty insurgents. But we need a daring decision by the government to let us attack the area and install checkpoints in orchards and fields.”

The insurgents' demands do have some support within the community. Saadi Abdullah, 38, a parent, said, “I would prevent my son from taking Saturday off if the insurgents didn't. Saturday is the holiday of Jews. The government seeks normalisation with Israel but they are all traitors and agents.”

But many people appear to be fed up with the extremists and just want to get on with their lives.

Yousif Mohammed, a 38-year old parent, told IWPR, "I am from Latifiyah, I do not agree with the humiliation of teachers and students. If the insurgents want to fight the Americans, they may do that. Let Iraqis live in peace.”

Haidar al-Moosawi is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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