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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 19:51 GMT 20:51 UK
Children in Iraq return to learning
By Hywel Jones
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

The teachers at Al-Hadif primary school in Baghdad were out on the front steps, ready to greet children for the start of a new term - and a new era in Iraqi education. But few came.

This was just an informal meet-and-greet day. A chance for teachers, parents and children to get to know each other. They were not expecting a busy day.

Iraqi teacher hands out books

Even so, the newly-painted classrooms and hallways at Al-Hadif were quiet, except for the occasional crack of gunfire from a skirmish not far away.

Maida Sabah has taught English at Al-Hadif for 15 years. But as far as she was concerned, this year would be the start of something good in Iraq's schools.

She was already thinking about how to spend her pay rise. Under Saddam Hussein, she was paid the equivalent of $4 a month. Under the Coalition Authority, she is getting a monthly wage of $120.

Maida plans to splash out on new clothes and "something for the house."

Saddam gone

She was glad that she would no longer be greeted with the children's chant of "Long Live Saddam" when entering the classroom.

A lot else has changed too. The former president's face has been removed from textbooks. Until new books arrive, that has meant tearing his picture out. Crude but effective.

Saddam Hussein's portrait has disappeared from the classroom wall, just as the street-corner portraits across Iraq have been painted over or smashed.

And many teachers with Ba'ath party links have lost their jobs. For now, Iraq's new governing elite are not prepared to forgive those who carried the party card under Saddam.

Much has changed at schools like Al-Hadif. But much is left to be done.

In one classroom, a handful of exercise books lay in a battered steel cupboard. When I opened the cupboard, one of its doors fell off.

The door was covered in stickers. A child had lovingly applied pictures of ballerinas and cartoon characters that one might see almost anywhere in the world.

Work in progress

Outside, old furniture and a blackboard lay propped up at one end of the schoolyard. Broken desks and other pieces of junk were piled high along the side of the yard.

The yard itself was covered in the mucky residue of builder's cement.

I bumped into a senior figure in Iraq's new education ministry, who happened to be visiting the school. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he expressed his anger that the renovation work at the school had not been finished in time for the new term.

Persuading parents that the streets are safe enough to take their children to school was one problem, he hinted. Making the schools decent places to learn and play was another.

Like so much else in Iraq, education is clearly a work in progress.

The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"It is an important landmark on the road back to normality"

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