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Schools reopen in Iraq after summer of sectarian violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi schoolchildren returned to their classrooms Wednesday in what many here view as a major test of people's confidence in the government after a summer of escalating sectarian violence.

Government officials estimated that 6 million children had returned to class amid fears that the violence would force many parents to keep their children at home, but an accurate count isn't expected for weeks.

There were no reports of school-related violence in Baghdad, and children—many wearing new clothes and accompanied by their parents—could be seen on many streets marching to school.

There were reports of high absenteeism at some schools, but it was impossible to know whether those students weren't in class because their parents had held them out, fearing violence, or were simply among the many thousands who traditionally skip the first week, when schools are consumed with distributing books and materials.

In a speech Tuesday, Education Minister Khudhair al-Khuzaee pleaded for the public's support, saying education can't improve without it.

Education officials had predicted a record number of registrations, particularly for Baghdad, but many parents have expressed concerns about safety after a summer in which violent deaths hit record levels in the capital.

The government was so concerned that children would be kept at home that it established a committee to help register children who've left the neighborhoods they lived in last year or who may have missed last year's final exams because of the violence.

On Wednesday, Baghdad's schools reported a shortage of paper and other supplies, but officials said supplies were expected to improve in the coming weeks. Roadside bombs killed a woman and two children in the Saydiya sector of southern Baghdad, but the deaths didn't appear to be related to the start of school.

One woman, Fatin Sabah, 34, admitted that she was nervous about the safety of her three children. She said her youngest reported that all the teachers had shown up but that many students had not. Her eldest decided to go to a school closer to home rather than attend a better one that's next to an Iraqi National Guard station. The Guard has been a target for insurgents.

But Sabah said she felt she had little choice but to send her children to school, in spite of her concerns about bombs and other armed attacks.

"Of course I am afraid, but what shall we do? We cannot let them lose the year and not go to school," she said.

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(Brunswick reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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