Iraqi rebels bite the bullet

Militiamen are swapping guns for construction tools under British guidance to rebuild the country

british colleges are taking their expertise to Iraq to retrain militia groups for peaceful occupations.

The first 57 fighters have just graduated from courses in welding, building, air conditioning and electrical installation as FE's capacity to promote social cohesion is tested to the limit.

Free transport is provided to a college in Najaf, south of Baghdad, from around the Shia holy city, where fighting has continued between Shia and Sunni Muslims since the coalition invasion. Control of the city was recently handed over from American authorities to the new Iraqi government.

The decision to retrain militiamen came after a fact-finding visit to Greenwich College by Dr Ebraheem a-Moosa al-Sabary, dean of Najaf Technical Institute.

Nine UK colleges so far have hosted delegations of Iraqi college heads and education policymakers, offering them training in leadership and management. It is part of a UK-wide initiative to develop FE in Iraq which has been boosted with pound;350,000 of funding authorised by Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister.

Much of the money will cover college managers coming here on fact-finding and training visits as Iraq's FE sector, based on the English system, is rebuilt. Iraqis will also shadow staff at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, Lifelong Learning UK and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

Iraqi-born Ali Hadawi, formerly vice-principal at Greenwich and now principal of Southend Adult Community College, is vice-chairman of the Iraq Steering Group of UK FE organisations supporting post-16 education in the country. He is confident that Iraq can have an integrated FE system bringing Shia and Sunni Muslims together, in the same way that colleges in Northern Ireland have stepped aside from sectarianism.

He said: "The idea is to equip young men with skills they could use within the local economy, hopefully get jobs and find their way out of the spiralling violence.

"This is something that's real and touches people's lives. If you can get just 10 people out of the militia to engage in full-time work then that's a real achievement."

A recent delegation of Iraqi policymakers said the country also needs people skilled in medicine, biotechnology, information technology, microelectronics and the petroleum industry.

Mr Hadawi said the work deserves greater support from the world community, adding: "The World Bank has a huge amount of money available for enabling Iraqis to govern themselves. But when you dig, you find that none of these projects qualify. Vocational education isn't getting any share."

Many of Iraq's militiamen have laid down their arms as the political process develops but, without training in new skills, Mr Hadawi believes there is a high risk that many will return to what they know - fighting.

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