BAGHDAD — Three dozen Iraqi teachers and guidance counselors came to a hotel seminar here recently, seeking tips on how to improve their nation's schools. They got balloons.
"Now I want you to take your balloon," an upbeat seminar instructor coaxed them soothingly, "and blow everything that makes you sad and everything that makes you mad into the balloon. Blow it all inside."
Unaccustomed to such touchy-feely seminars, several teachers shifted nervously in their seats. A few giggled, and others looked confused. But after some shrugs and smirks, they complied. Soon, several balloons were so overinflated they threatened to pop.
The exercise aimed to demonstrate a technique educators could use to help children cope with the trauma of Saddam Hussein's regime and the U.S.-led invasion. But it also revealed that before educators could help their students make a new start, they themselves must first face a few ghosts.
With Iraq's 8,500 schools set to reopen Oct. 1, U.S. and Iraqi education officials are scrambling to revise textbooks, repair classrooms and retrain teachers. It's the beginning of what will probably be a years-long campaign to erase Hussein's imprint on the education system.
Sessions like the hotel seminar sponsored by UNICEF are among the first steps. During two days of workshops, teachers aired a litany of complaints no one would have dared voice under the old regime. Computers and other supplies are sorely lacking, they said. Years of neglect have left schoolhouses nearly unusable. Once admired, Iraq's primary schools had become second-rate.
A portion of the $87 billion that President Bush asked Congress to approve for war and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be used to repair and construct some schools. Bechtel Group has won a $38-million contract to rehabilitate more than 1,000 aging campuses.
UNICEF is working on 180 more schools. U.S. and British military forces have taken 230 projects under their wing.
At the hotel seminar, the teachers were given Magic Markers and asked to list on their balloons the things that make them most mad and sad. War and devastation, they wrote. The loss of loved ones. The lack of electricity. Crime. Child labor.
But nobody could bring themselves to mention Saddam Hussein.
"The fear is still there," said Fuad Hussein, a former high school teacher who fled Baghdad in 1975 after making enemies in the Baathist regime. "We still have a lot of work to do. Not just for students but for teachers."
Hussein, no relation to the former president, returned to Baghdad this summer as an advisor to the Ministry of Education after spending the last 28 years as a political consultant in Amsterdam.
The job is daunting. Even by a despot's standards, Saddam Hussein's exploitation of the Iraqi education system was impressive. "He was embedded in the curriculum," said Leslye Arsht, a Texas education consultant advising the ministry.
Teachers had to join the Baath Party and were encouraged to pump students for incriminating information about their parents. Hussein's picture appeared in every textbook, and entire courses were devoted to his life.
Reform efforts began immediately after the war with the firing of 37 high-ranking Baath Party loyalists from the ministry. An additional 12,000 teachers -- out of 365,000 nationwide -- are targeted for dismissal in the coming weeks, according to Fuad Hussein. He said he would like to fire more but was worried that a more thorough housecleaning would leave too many classrooms empty this fall.
Changes are also being made to textbooks, but initial activity has focused on weeding out the most objectionable elements -- the ubiquitous praising of Saddam Hussein, statements of Iraqi superiority and the like.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, UNICEF and a handful of other groups will spend $82 million to reprint 75 million "cleansed" books. They hope to have them ready by October, but old volumes with the offending pages ripped out are being stockpiled just in case.
U.S. involvement in revising the old texts and reshaping the curriculum has stirred complaints. "The Iraqi people should decide what is taught in their schools, not Americans," said Thaer Ibrahim Shammari, who teaches at Baghdad's Islamic College. "Would President Bush allow me to decide what is taught in U.S. schools?"
U.S. officials riled clerics by suggesting this summer that schools should tone down Islamic teachings, which they blamed for fostering extremism. Religious leaders threatened to boycott schools. The Americans backed down, tabling the issue for a later date.
Distracted by the 1980-88 war with Iran -- and the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- Iraq stopped building and repairing schools in 1985, officials said. Many lack electricity, desks, plumbing and windowpanes.
Because of the worsening conditions, attendance levels dropped; a safe environment is considered key to drawing students back.