- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

BAGHDAD — Iraqi students began a new school term yesterday, and the first lesson at the al-Yakhda primary school was that Saddam Hussein has been ousted.

“Saddam is gone for good and our problems have been solved,” English teacher Meliha Hussein, 45, told her class of 20 sixth-grade girls at al-Yakhda, located in a middle-class Shi’ite Muslim neighborhood.

“Saddam was bad,” the girls chanted back in unison.

Iraqi students registered for the new school term on Wednesday, but yesterday marked the first day of formal classroom instruction.

Al-Yakhda, which has 50 teachers and 1,041 pupils in grades one through six, is among more than 1,000 schools that have been rebuilt or renovated by the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Saddam six months ago.

But many infrastructure problems remain. New textbooks have not arrived, although the United Nations’ educational agency arranged for the printing of 72 million textbooks without references to Saddam.

The U.S. military hired Iraqi contractors to rebuild al-Yakhda. Two months and $40,000 later, the school has been completely refurbished. Walls have been freshly painted pink and white, and new ceiling fans spin overhead.

That’s quite different from the conditions when the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment of the 1st Armored Division arrived here in the aftermath of Saddam’s downfall. They found the school a gutted ruin of crumbled walls with bullet casings strewn around.

“We saw that we could make a difference,” said Lt. Col. Garry Bishop of Philadelphia. “For the first time in 35 years, these children will be educated free from propaganda.”

As first graders strained to learn how to hold pencils correctly, U.S. soldiers outside unloaded truckloads of new desks and chairs for al-Yakhda. Pupils not in class swarmed around them, tugging at their uniforms and crying out: “We love you.”

“The kids like us the most,” said Spec. Rivera Moises of Santa Rosa, Calif. “With them, it’s a winning situation.”

Since the school is in a Shi’ite neighborhood, teachers had little nice to say about the old regime. Saddam enjoyed more support among the Sunni minority. Most of the attacks against U.S. troops occur in the “Sunni Triangle” to the north and west of the capital.

“Memories of the war are still fresh, but we shall go past that,” said first grade teacher Sanna Hanu. “They will be safer now.”

Kneeling in the stockroom, Arabic teacher Radea Mehdi, 36, was busy ripping out Saddam’s photographs from the old textbooks.

“Sometimes the children get confused,” she said.

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