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Expulsion of a Dictator Gets an 'Incomplete'

Efforts aside, Hussein remains a presence at Iraqi schools as the new year is about to begin.

October 02, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Elementary school Principal Khalida Kubeisi bustled about her office, busy with tasks that might preoccupy any school administrator as the school year is about to begin. She went through the registration rolls. She asked the janitor to hose down the dusty playground. She fretted about the broken water fountain.

And in a spare moment, she leafed through a stack of tattered sixth-grade history books, checking to see that a big X had been penciled through each passage extolling the glory of Saddam Hussein. Hardly a page was without one.

With Wednesday the first formal day of the academic year and classes set to begin Saturday for most of Iraq's 4.5 million schoolchildren, educators and pupils alike are preparing to put the former Hussein-centered curriculum behind them. But the deposed president remains a looming presence despite the hopes of many Iraqis that the new school year marks a symbolic fresh start.

At Kubeisi's school in central Baghdad, the freshly swept central corridor was dominated by a mural that said in giant letters, "Saddam is our defender!" Watercolor palm trees and daisies had been painted over it, but the letters still plainly showed through.

"The paint we used was too thin, and we didn't have money for more," the principal explained. "We will try again."

Before the back-to-school season, Iraqi and American authorities had hoped to complete the nationwide distribution of newly printed textbooks free of references to Hussein and his long-ruling Baath Party.

A few of the books are in circulation but the full printing is not expected to be completed for two to three months, the Education Ministry said.

Sarzad Talabani, a ministry official, blamed the delay on several factors, including staff cutbacks by the United Nations after August's deadly car bombing of the world body's Baghdad headquarters. Some of the textbook work was being done under the auspices of UNICEF and UNESCO, both of which have significantly reduced their presence in Iraq.

"We went through more than 350 titles, removing references to Saddam," Talabani said. "But it just wasn't possible to get everything clean in time. So we have to use the old texts, but the teachers have been trained to go through them and tell students not to pay attention to them, or explain why they are wrong."

Some teachers, however, don't think that's enough.

"Yes, we can cross out words and tear out pages," said high school teacher Sajida Nasser, pointing to a book whose frontispiece was a portrait of Hussein. A full chapter was devoted to poems of homage to him.

"It was bad for their minds then, and it still is," she said. "I wish we had the new books."

Full-fledged rewrites, with new text to replace the excised references, could be more than a year away, Talabani said.

Even so, no school day will lack for hallmarks of the new post-Hussein era.

Instead of standing on the playground chanting slogans in praise of the former president, children will have a few extra moments to kick a ball or play tag at the start of the day. Traditional children's songs will replace the hymns to Hussein. Omnipresent portraits of the leader have vanished from classrooms, leaving only pale spots on sooty walls.

Kubeisi, for one, is relieved that she can use her weekly speeches to the school to talk about anything from lunchroom rules to good study habits.

"Before, I had to talk about Saddam, Saddam, Saddam, all the time," she said. "It was so boring for them. It was so boring for me."

It's not just a question of exorcising Hussein's ghosts from texts and lectures. The schools are a microcosm of a society struggling with war's aftermath, the pangs of transition from a dictator's rule to eventual self-rule, and the complex dilemmas of liberation and occupation.

At Baghdad Girls' Secondary School in the affluent Mansour neighborhood, many of the prewar students were the daughters of the Baath Party ruling elite. With registration well underway, teachers said they expected some students would not return, because their families had been forced into hiding.

"It's sad to me, because these girls didn't do anything wrong -- only their fathers did," said 17-year-old senior Walla Faik, who was at the school to register.

Her own father had another concern: whether the school's security was adequate to protect the girls. A postwar epidemic of street crime, carjackings and assaults made many Baghdad women and girls afraid to venture outdoors in the weeks after the collapse of the regime.

Now, with some Iraqi police back on the streets, the situation is slowly improving, but students said they still felt vulnerable.

"I think my dad will drive me here every day, and watch me walk in the gate," Walla said.

The trauma of life during wartime -- fresh in the minds of students and teachers when schools briefly reopened last spring to finish the academic year -- has faded somewhat, but the memories will persist in the classroom, school officials predicted.

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