Millions of Iraqi students begin new academic year a month late because of unrest



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BAGHDAD — Iraqi students returned to school on Wednesday amid tightened security as the academic year began a month late because thousands of people displaced by last summer's onslaught by the Islamic State group had taken shelter in school buildings.

In the areas of northern and western Iraq captured by the extremist group earlier this year -- including the country's second largest city Mosul -- students are not required to attend classes, but will be able to watch lectures on state-run TV to prepare for final exams, Education Ministry spokeswoman Salama al-Hassan said.

She told The Associated Press only a few schools are still occupied by displaced families and that authorities have set up trailers to be used as classrooms. She could not provide a specific number for the students, but said around nine million attended classes last year.

More than 1.8 million people have been uprooted from their homes by the militants' advance, with many sheltering in schools, mosques and abandoned buildings. Last month authorities decided to delay school by a month in order to provide alternate housing arrangements.

In Baghdad's eastern Zayona neighborhood, hundreds of students in blue and white uniforms stood in lines in the school yard, chanting the national anthem and shouting "long live Iraq" before heading into their classes.

The road leading to Konous elementary school was blocked with razor wire as four policemen stood guard, highlighting security concerns in a city that has seen near-daily attacks by insurgents.

"We are happy to receive and see our students again after this extraordinary delay," said Nawal al-Mihamadawi, the school principal. "The security measures we have taken are enough to secure the school and the students."

She said that authorities decided to cancel the Saturday holiday for the rest of the year to help the school staffs make up for the delay. "Classes and teachers are ready," she said.

But the security situation still worries some parents.

"Considering the current bad security situation, we thought that the school year would never start, but thank God, my girl is attending classes today," Omar Abdul-Wahab, 42, said as he accompanied his daughter to school.

Iraq's schools closed during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but opened weeks after the fall of Baghdad and operated normally even during the worst spasms of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

Iraq's Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, called on students in a statement to work hard "because with your success you will break the back of the enemy that means harm to the country. You will be the cornerstone for a country with a prosperous future."

Schools have also theoretically resumed inside the territories controlled by the Islamic State group. The militant group declared the start of the academic year on Sept. 9, but no students have shown up.

Early last month, the group set new rules for students and teachers in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria and abolished classes about history, literature, music and Christianity. It also declared patriotic songs blasphemous and ordered certain pictures torn out of textbooks.

The group later announced the establishment of the "Islamic State Education Diwan" to oversee the schools and introduce the new curriculum.

It stipulated that any reference to the republics of Iraq or Syria be replaced with "Islamic State." Pictures that violate its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam must be ripped out of books. And anthems and lyrics that encourage love of country are now viewed as a show of "polytheism and blasphemy," and are strictly banned.

The new curriculum even went so far as to explicitly ban the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution — which was not previously taught in Iraqi schools.

Abu Abdullah, a physician in Mosul who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution, said he did not send his three sons to school because he did not want them to be indoctrinated by the extremist group.

"I am sad to see my sons not able to continue their studies. They are missing a school year because of the political and sectarian struggle in the country," he said.

Asma Ghanim, a 38-year old Mosul resident who fled when the militants overran the city in June, managed to register her daughter in Konous school after settling in her parents' house in Zayona.

Ghanim expressed hope that her daughter would have a successful school year in Baghdad after "leaving everything behind in Mosul."

Elsewhere in Iraq, militants shot down a military helicopter Wednesday morning near the city of Beiji north of Baghdad, killing the pilot and his assistant, a local official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information to the media.


Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at @sinansm

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