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Bush’s next target: young minds in Iraqi schools

Washington, April 6: When the new Iraqi school year begins in five months, the Bush administration hopes to have in place wholesale revisions to textbooks that have taught a generation of Iraqis to be ready to die for Saddam Hussein.

The revisions are part of an ambitious US effort to demilitarise a school curriculum that has touted Iraqi battlefield prowess and weaponry and demonised the US as a fearsome enemy.

Expatriates and scholars point to that curriculum, in place for the past quarter century, as one explanation for the die-hard devotion of the suicide bombers and fanatical militiamen that Saddam is threatening to unleash in the final defence of Baghdad. More than half of Iraq’s youthful population knows no other form of schooling.

Iraqi expatriates working with the state department are discussing strategies for devising a whole new approach to education. The US Agency for International Development (AID) is preparing to award education-related contracts worth an estimated $65 million. A coalition headed by Creative Associates International of Washington, recently won a $16.5-million contract for similar educational reform in Afghanistan.

Foreign aid documents obtained by The Washington Post suggest the Bush administration plans to repeat its Afghan strategy, which showcased schools as a quick and highly visible demonstration of improvements stemming from US intervention. Stakes are high. A recent study by international security experts described the reconstruction of Iraq as a “test case” that will go far in establishing the US’ enduring image in the Islamic world.

The current Iraqi curriculum was crafted to inculcate extreme nationalism and love for Saddam at an early age, said Phebe Marr, a former National Defence University professor and author of The Modern History of Iraq.

“One of the most important things (taught) is bearing arms and the constant readiness to fight enemies,” Marr said. “The definition of the nation and your identity is tied up with the military. All the way though the texts, you are supposed to be ready to fight and defend your country.”

From an early age, Zainab Suwaij and her Iraqi classmates would line up to pledge allegiance to Saddam. “With our souls and our blood we sacrifice for Saddam,” they would sing. “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, O Saddam.” Pupils as young as six then opened textbooks with colourful photos of Saddam in fatigues and pressed uniforms, saluting and smiling and reviewing troops. Other photographs showed tanks, machine guns and grenade launchers.

“What a horrible thing to teach kids,” says Suwaij, now 32 and living in Boston. Even in texts used by the youngest Iraqi students, violence spreads across the pages. One sixth-grade text in use in recent years says, “The army is the school of heroes and the field of chivalry, courage and daring.” Another shows small boys in military fatigues, including one examining an ammunition clip.

In one exercise for sixth-graders, a civics text directs students to find a photograph of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and point out “our army as they plunge into the noble battle against the imperialist American attack.”

The books, which bear Koranic verses, refer repeatedly to what they describe as the homeland’s greatest enemies: Iranians, Zionists and Americans. “We’re the enemy, the aggressors,” Marr said.

Expatriates said Baathist teachers direct kindergartners to chant, march and pretend to carry guns. Within a few years, the children are shooting real firearms and many begin attending paramilitary summer camps.

Saddam’s strategic approach to education is highlighted in a 1977 speech, delivered two years before he assumed the presidency.

“Some fathers have escaped our hold for various reasons, but a young boy is still in our hands,” Saddam said, according to a recent report from the International Federation for Human Rights. “Teach him to stand up to one or the other of his parents.”

Such a student, Saddam said, will bear arms “day and night, without flagging when asked to confront the imperialists.”

The education system’s martyr-building machine meshes with a series of Baathist paramilitary youth groups, which recruit schoolchildren as young as five, according to the federation report. The scouting organisations, each tailored to a particular age group, are known by a variety of names: Saddam’s Cubs, the Vanguard, the Order of Chivalry, the Youth Brigade. Tens of thousands of Iraqi children have attended training camps run by the groups, which supply members to Saddam’s Fedayeen.

The groups promise children money, prestige and higher school grades, which translate into greater opportunity in Iraqi society. Members wear camouflage fatigues while practicing marksmanship. They hurl dummy grenades, march in formation and take turns dashing through flames.

“They learn to adulate Saddam Hussein as a person,” the report says. “A Cub may speak out spontaneously, denouncing his parents, neighbours or friends, and denunciation becomes systemic as the Cub grows older.”

“A child whose father has died or gone missing is considered a perfect target to become not only a Cub but also a future Fedayeen.”

Suwaij, who moved to the US a decade ago, believes many of the fanatical guerrilla fighters are orphans adopted and then seduced by the state. Children born out of wedlock also must rely on the Baath Party for sustenance and education. “They leave them in the garbage,” she said of such outcasts, who are then recruited by the youth groups. “They don’t have families. These kids, they don’t know anything about the world, except that Saddam is the one who is giving them money, who is giving them shelter.”

Last summer, Saddam made an event out of special training camps for thousands of boys who vowed to repel any US-led invasion. Photographers followed the teen-agers as they studied Iraqi history, performed calisthenics and fired AK-47s.

“We are sharp swords in the hands of President Saddam Hussein to be used to fight our enemies,” Mustafa Amir, 14, told a reporter at the time.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi education system ranked among the best in the Arab world, producing a high literacy rate and a large middle class filled with professionals. But the war and subsequent UN sanctions brought sharp deterioration.

Today, US and UN documents describe Iraqi schools and universities as a shambles. A 1993 UN field survey of school buildings in central and southern Iraq found that more than eight out of 10 required rehabilitation.

School enrollment had declined from 75 per cent in 1989 to 53 per cent by the late 1990s, according to AID documents.

Basic supplies such as desks and blackboards are in very short supply in cities and virtually nonexistent in rural areas. There is a shortage of teachers.

AID has sketched an ambitious schedule for delivering supplies, revamping the curriculum and retraining teachers. The plan calls for delivering materials to 2.1 million children in 12,500 primary and secondary schools within six months, and to 4.2 million children in 25,000 schools within one year after Saddam's downfall.

The logistics of producing schoolbooks in a hurry could lead to texts being loaded into laptop computers and distributed to teachers with PowerPoint presentation software, said State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan. ``Our hope is, we can be ready by September,'' Sullivan said.

Last April, the State Department launched a ``Future of Iraq'' project, under which exiled Iraqis have begun studying political, economic and social reforms. One committee composed of representatives from all of Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups was given the task of proposing educational reforms.

The committee's 18 members met over two days in January, according to Hind Rassam Culhane, a psychology teacher at Mercy College in Dobs Ferry, N.Y. ``We recommended we look at different models (of education) and not just the U.S. model,'' she said of her committee. They discussed ``participatory education,'' promoting ``student rights'' in the classroom and courses in English as a second language.

``We have experts on child psychology,'' added Suwaij, who also sits on the education committee. ``A lot of work is going to be how to de-Baath-ize these kids, to make them like regular human beings.''

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