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In sign of Baghdad's rebirth, schools ready to reopen Saturday

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ammar Yaser remembers sprinting across the campus of Baghdad University in the hours after Saddam Hussein's government collapsed.

The Islamic Studies building was burning. Groups were ripping office equipment from the printing center. Student records were scattered across the grounds. Shouts and the sounds of breaking glass came from the school's museum.

He thought about the museum's collection of ancient and priceless books as he ran past broken metal gates and through its shattered front doors. Looters had ripped off the head of a stuffed tiger, tore the wings off stuffed birds, even smashed a jar containing a human fetus and left it on the tile floor.

And now, they were heading up the steps toward 20,000 priceless volumes.

"What choice did I have?" Yaser asked, with a look of total exhaustion and wearing the same green shirt and gray slacks he had on then. "Those books were one of a kind, a record of thousands of years of our civilization. I stopped them. They had weapons; I did not. I grabbed them and threw them down the steps. I fought them with my hands and feet. I was alone for four days. Then help came."

Help came from other students. Together, they moved the books to mosques and then to safe houses. The mosques then provided food and weapons to protect the campus.

Yaser, a 21-year-old geography major, became one of hundreds of students, teachers and neighbors in the Iraqi capital who raced to the defense of schools during the siege of looting that occurred when the government collapsed. Buildings across the city burned, but effective defenses formed only at schools.

And, because of those efforts, on Saturday the biggest sign yet of Baghdad's rebirth will take place: For the first time since March 18, school doors will open.

From elementary schools decorated with paintings of Donald Duck saying, "Guns and pencils are equally important," to the nation's top university, students and teachers are ready for a dose of normal life.

As 14-year-old Ali said during a break in a soccer game in the poor sector once known as Saddam City: "Every day, all we have to do is play soccer, all day long. It was fun at first, but now it's time to go back to school. We need to be learning, not just playing games."

For the students of Baghdad, this surely will be a time few will forget. From the college-aged who roamed school grounds armed with automatic weapons to elementary students who learned to play hacky-sack from American soldiers, it has all the qualities of a bizarre "What I did for spring break" essay. Many have memories of defending their schools.

At the 13,000-student Al-Mustan Serai school, which was in flames, mosques organized security teams to protect what was left and to fix the rest. Some of the damage is beyond their ability: A seven-story building used as the student bank burned for so long that those nearby expect it to collapse at any moment.

But they saved some rooms. Khalid Al-Atte, 28, who teaches political science, said that he and several students climbed to rooftops and set up a defense, hiding behind cement flowerpots, fighting off looters.

He proudly shows rooms in two buildings that he said, "Now lack only students to be complete." The teachers and students cleaned, replaced broken ceiling tiles and rewired some buildings to get them in working order.

"It will be months before we can say we are back to normal," he said, holding a handful of pink student record folders that were charred around the edges but not destroyed. "Like these, much as been damaged, but much has been saved, also."

Hassen Moltsan, 44, defended the Al-Fredos School, despite bullets popping through the windows above his head. He walks into a classroom, decorated on one wall with drawings of teddy bears and on the opposite wall with a poster showing Lady Liberty blindfolded by an American flag and holding scales that are tipping under the weight of a bloody sword.

He notes that the desks, the chalkboards, the posters, all are as the students left them. The only changes are the torn photos of Saddam that by law used to hang at the front of every classroom.

At Baghdad University, the students have hung a banner reading, "Do your best and God and the Prophet will see your work," on the repaired front gates. Students are showing up daily to clean. The university will open some classes on Saturday, others as the space can be fixed or found.

Yaser now patrols with other armed students around the clock. He said that until school is reopened, he will not be able to rest. He has been told that it will be a year before the museum will be ready to reopen. This, he said, makes him very sad. He said he loves his university.

But, he said, he has a happy dream about it, one that many fellow students say they share: "All I dream of is that soon, I may be able to continue my studies. I know this seems like too much to ask for now, but it is what I wish for."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

USIRAQ-SCHOOLS.

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