Iraqi school is finally in session
January 7, 2009
TARMIYAH, Iraq — Singing and speeches echoed through the sun-shot courtyard of the Huda girls’ school as hundreds of students gathered for a reopening Monday.
Over 1,000 high school and middle school students will now begin classes at Huda.
But many of those voices could have been silenced. In 2007, reconstruction contractors — subsidized by the U.S. coalition but bribed by insurgents — wired bombs into the building’s foundation.
Explosives had been laid under the thresholds of classroom doorways, and propane canister bombs were set in the basement of the school. It was a brazen and bloodthirsty show of strength by al-Qaida in Iraq, which in 2006 and 2007 held sway in this small town north of Baghdad.
"They want to kill everybody," said Muhammad Ibrahim Jassim, the school’s administrative supervisor for the Ministry of Education.
On Monday, the students, clad in white head scarves, jostled and laughed on the school grounds. The reopening is a sign of progress, U.S. officials say, in an area free of all-out warfare but still plagued by targeted killings and bombs.
The Huda school, now one of the region’s best facilities, also shines a light on educational needs in the outlying areas of Iraq.
Scores of schools are reopening. But towns such as Tarmiyah, scarred by years of warfare and al-Qaida influence, are struggling with crumbling infrastructure, crowded classrooms and a sometimes dysfunctional national government that holds the purse strings for reconstruction.
"Now we have a huge construction movement," Jassim said. "But in our high schools, sometimes we have more than 48 students per classroom."
More than 18 schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated in Tarmiyah over the past year with the help of the U.S. military. The area still needs seven new primary schools and three more high schools, Jassim said.
The request for funding and new construction in 2008 was made to the Ministry of Education and there has been no response, he said.
Huda is one of more than 100 schools in the Tarmiyah district and most of the other schools are not getting reconstruction attention, said Malcom Phelps, the senior education adviser for the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in the town.
The district schools often lack heating and cooling, have broken furniture and windows, and have primitive sewage systems — or none at all, Phelps said.
But, he said, "The worst problem is overcrowding. Really, half the students [at Huda] should be going someplace else, they should be going to a different facility."
The drop in violence in Iraq has allowed schools to assess needs but requests are often tangled in bureaucracy at the national level, Phelps said.
All education funding and most decisions must be made at the Ministry of Education in Baghdad, he said. Teachers and principals are ministry employees.
"Last year, the Ministry of Education only spent 7 percent of its [available funding] money," Phelps said.
The national government must create a mechanism to provide timely funding to schools that desperately need it, he said.
In the meantime, the Huda school "sets a model, it sets a standard," Phelps said. "It gives them some hope for a better future."
The U.S. Army hoped the opening ceremony Monday would serve as a model for improved security as well. Soldiers stayed in the background as Iraqi soldiers, police and members of the Sunni awakening council — armed civilians working with security forces — patrolled the streets and school.
Attacks against U.S. forces in Tarmiyah are rare. But two suicide bombings in other areas of Iraq over the previous two days underscored the need for security in a town still known for simmering violence.
The opening ceremony, which was held without incident, coincided with a nearby meeting of about 40 tribal leaders and sheiks.
"I think this is a representative event," said Col. Todd B. McCaffrey, commander of the 2nd Combat Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.
The rise of the Iraqi authorities has pushed much of the al-Qaida influence from Tarmiyah, said McCaffrey, of Hudson, Ohio.
"With that has come an influx of economic progress," he said.