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Battling on in the face of a new war

Sanctions and battles have degraded Iraq's once lauded education system. Olivia Ward reports from Baghdad.

THE broken-down air conditioner is in a losing contest with the searing midday heat, the walls are cracked and the stuffing is falling out of the sagging chairs.

This is the principal's office at the Dia Qar high school for boys in a middle-class district of northern Baghdad, and compared with the classrooms where 500 students and 30 teachers toil daily, it is a haven of luxury.

Their classrooms are airless, there are no computers and not enough notebooks and texts to go round.

Dia Qar means "mother of battles", a reference to the 1991 Gulf War. But it speaks for most of Iraq's primary and secondary schools more than a decade after the war and the onset of United Nations sanctions. They sent the oil-rich economy into a tail-spin from which it has only recently begun to recover.

In the past two years, a United Nations Oil for Food programme that allows Iraq limited oil sales to pay for humanitarian needs, along with an increase in sanctions-busting trade, and covert surcharges slapped on buyers of Iraqi oil, have brought a gradual upturn in the economy.

But the richest have benefited most, and as a new war threatens to destroy what progress has been made, education remains in a largely fruitless struggle for improvement.

"Our problems?" said Ahmed Abdullah with a wry smile on his deeply lined face. "Where would you like me to begin?" A district supervisor in northern Baghdad, he makes daily rounds of the schools in his charge. It's no secret that we have a shortage of textbooks, writing materials and teaching aids," he said. "If parents can't make up for the shortfall, the children have to do without."

The lack of textbooks stems from printing problems, because some of the materials needed for the publishing process are considered "dual use" and are either barred or held up by the UN sanctions committee. "They seem to suspect we are building bombs, not children's lives," said Abdullah.

Sanctions are not the only difficulty faced by Iraq's schools. The United Nations children's fund, Unicef, also blames the education ministry for "sluggishness" in producing inventories of school needs, so that aid can be properly distributed.

Many schools are in a state of disrepair, and those that are up and running are scarcely conducive to learning, Abdullah said. "If kids are boiling in summer and freezing in winter, how can they concentrate on their work?"

Equally serious is the malnutrition that persists in spite of the recent upturn. Schools are no longer able to provide meals for their pupils, and many live on the protein-poor diet handed out by the Iraqi authorities from the Oil for Food revenues.

"Children are anaemic, they get sick easily and find it hard to concentrate in class," said Abdullah. "And we have lots of dropouts these days. Kids have to work at younger and younger ages."

He said schools were in a bad enough shape without a war. "What will happen if one breaks out, Allah alone knows."

CATALOGUE OF CRUMBLING SCHOOLS

IRAQ won a United Nations award for its literacy efforts in 1990, as the leader of learning in the Arab world.

But the adult literacy rate fell from 89 per cent in 1985 to 58 per cent in 2000 and is now facing further decline.

Beyond materials shortages - and the inability of many Iraqi parents to pay for extras that their children need - there are serious problems with dilapidated school buildings, some of which have suffered decades-old war damage, others the decay of years without repairs.

According to a UN survey, 83 per cent of primary schools are crumbling and, as the population increases, more than 5,000 new schools are needed to meet basic enrolment demands.

Although statistics on education are few and far between, the UN's humanitarian programme has noted a 30 per cent plunge in attendance rates since 1990. Now, in this, the country where writing was invented, teachers fear for the future.

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