BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's new school year is approaching, and there are more than the usual back-to-school jitters in Baghdad, even for a war zone.
When classes begin Wednesday, Iraqi and U.S. officials will be watching to see whether Iraq's parents feel secure enough about the country's future and confident enough in the new government to send their children to school after a summer of unprecedented sectarian violence.
The government is predicting they will. It's forecasting that in Baghdad, 50,000 more high school students will show up for the 2006-2007 school year than the 505,000 the Ministry of Education said were registered last year.
But interviews with parents reveal ambivalence. Many who fled Iraq in February to escape sectarian violence after a Shiite Muslim mosque was bombed in Samarra haven't returned, and some who have said they didn't bring their children with them.
"I think the situation this year is going to be worse," said taxi driver Safa Alrubaie, who left his school-age son and young daughter with relatives in Syria after a vacation. "I will not be comfortable sending him to school this year."
Last year, it was bad enough that the first day of school was rescheduled several times because of outbreaks of violence. Alrubaie said that two of his son's teachers were abducted at gunpoint, and an improvised explosive device went off in front of the school.
When pressed, education officials acknowledge that they have no idea how many children will show up for the first day of school. Accurate numbers probably won't be available until November.
But there's no doubt that school enrollment is a major barometer of Iraqi confidence in what lies ahead.
The United States has spent millions rehabilitating buildings, improving teacher training and writing and publishing new textbooks. The government has set up a special committee to encourage displaced Iraqis to return for the start of the school year.
That committee also is working to register displaced students who didn't leave Iraq in the district to which they fled and is encouraging students to retake final exams that they may have missed or failed because of the disruption after the mosque bombing.
Whether that will help bolster enrollment has yet to be seen in a system in which many of the schools still don't have dependable running water and electricity.
For years, Iraq's education system was one of the best in the Middle East. But economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime, wars with Iran and the United States, and ongoing corruption have left much of it in shambles. A U.N. agency, UNESCO, estimates Iraq's literacy rate at 60 percent, one of the lowest in the Arab world. Only 37 percent of rural women can read, and 30 percent of Iraqi girls of high school age are enrolled in school, compared with 42 percent of boys, UNESCO said.
The Ministry of Education, controlled by supporters of maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has an annual budget of close to $1 billion to serve roughly 6.2 million school-age children. The ministry employs 500,000 as teachers, administrators or other school staff.
Through contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government has pumped more than $170 million since 2003 into programs to improve Iraq's primary and secondary education systems.
A private firm, Creative Associates, which came under criticism by Congress and in news accounts for receiving Iraq contracts without competitive bidding, was given two contracts worth more than $100 million to rehabilitate schools, train secondary school teachers, distribute supplies and develop a management system.
A $10 million UNESCO contract resulted in more than 8.7 million math and science textbooks being printed. UNICEF received about $19.6 million to train teachers, fix toilet facilities and distribute school supplies.
During the summer of 2003, Bechtel, a multinational engineering and construction firm that's been criticized for many of its no-bid contracts in Iraq's reconstruction, received a $40 million contract to rehabilitate more than 1,200 schools. Most of that involved painting buildings or replacing windows.
Some of that work was criticized as being shoddy and dangerously done, which Bechtel blamed on Iraqi subcontractors. The firm revisited the schools to make repairs.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is assisting in school reconstruction projects, hopes to have refurbished 28 schools serving 8,400 students in the city's Adhamiyah neighborhood this fall as part of a U.S. push to cut back on sectarian violence.
But the infusion of cash will be for naught if parents are too afraid to send their children to school, and U.S. government officials say that the current state of violence has them concerned.
"In the long term, if the Iraqis can put together some sort of civil society for themselves, education will fare well. But in the long term, if this level of violence continues, or God forbid, there is an even greater level of violence, education will suffer," said one official, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Khalida Habeeb and her husband have four children. The Sunni Muslim family last spring left their home in the Hay al Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad because Shiite militia had taken control of their block. She sent the children back to school to take their final exams just before summer break. Two of the children failed.
Last year, gunmen attacked Iraqi army troops near her children's school. When school guards opened fire, the teachers and headmistress fled, Habeeb recalled, leaving the children crying and hugging the one adult who remained: the cleaning lady.
"I am waiting to see the situation at the beginning of the school year. If I do not see many students attending, I will not let them attend school this year," Habeeb said of her children.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Mayada, failed her final exams because she missed so much school. She'd like to see her friends again, but she's frightened at the prospect of going back to school.
"I am afraid of the explosions, the terrorists and the National Guard," Mayada said.
(Awsy is a special correspondent in the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.