For Iraqi Students, Hussein's Arrival Is End of History

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 15, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD -- The two-year-old modern history textbook used at Baghdad's Mansour High School for Boys doesn't mention the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003.

There's not a word about Iraq's annexation of -- and subsequent expulsion from -- Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, or its grinding eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s that took the lives of a generation of young men.

Perhaps most conspicuously absent from the book, earlier versions of which were packed with florid praise for Hussein, is any reference to the former dictator. For the purposes of instruction at Mansour High, and most schools across Iraq, history ends in 1968, before the bloodless coup that swept the Baath Party to power.

U.S.-sponsored reconstruction efforts have renovated or rebuilt nearly 3,000 Iraqi schools, retrained 55,000 teachers and administrators and -- under the supervision of the government's de-Baathification commission -- revised or redacted millions of textbooks that glorified 35 years of tyrannical rule. Dozens of schools named for Hussein were reflagged, and once-mandatory courses in nationalism and Baathist ideology were scrapped.

But Iraq's updated history books now contain no information on the pivotal events of the past three decades and more, a fact some teachers and politicians say will handicap students and delay Iraqi society in coming to terms with a long period of uninterrupted trauma.

Education officials said they decided soon after Hussein fell from power that the wounds of his rule were so fresh -- and the potential for retaliatory violence so great -- that the subject was best omitted from school texts, at least for now. This year, a committee of experts selected by the Education Ministry will launch an ambitious overhaul of school curricula. The goal is to produce the first broadly accepted history of Iraq's troubled recent past, a formidable challenge in a country split along ethnic and sectarian lines.

"It will be very, very, very hard to represent all the viewpoints. It cannot be viewed as something imposed by the strongest," said an Education Ministry official who will head the new curricular development committee and is already reviewing nominations for roughly 40 other positions. He agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the job.

"The former regime used the curriculum as a mouthpiece for its own political interests," he continued. "We have to be careful. We have to be tactful. We need to make books that are acceptable for a Kurd from the north, a child from Ramadi and a girl in Basra."

The committee will begin more or less from scratch. Hussein's ongoing trial -- which is being broadcast in its entirety on local satellite channels -- has helped educate a public starved for accurate information about the former government. A private foundation is planning a museum to document the atrocities committed during his rule, but it may not open for years. In the absence of a comprehensive effort to educate young Iraqis, few educators feel such advances are enough.

"This is a part of Iraq that we are denying. Saddam Hussein is in the people's minds, even if he is removed from the book," said Yahia Abbas, 53, a history teacher at Mansour High, one of Baghdad's most respected schools. "You can't just make 35 years disappear."

On a recent weekday in a shabby, stone classroom, Abbas lectured to about 35 students on the British invasion of Iraq in the 1940s. Eager pupils strained from their seats, arms extended to draw his attention.

"Why did the British attack Baghdad?" Abbas asked, and hands shot up before the words were out of his mouth.

"Sir, sir, sir, sir," begged a hefty 15-year-old. "Because the revolution was demanding independence and because it was supported by Germany and Italy, sir," the boy continued, without pausing for break.

"And remember where the spark for independence came from?" Abbas asked. "Woodrow Wilson, after World War I," three voices seemed to say at once.

On this day, the discussion never strayed into the modern period. When it does and students ask about Hussein, such as during a class this year in which someone compared him to Adolf Hitler, "I dance around the question," Abbas said. "It could be trouble for me."

Jamal Khalid Amin, principal of Mansour High, where about half of the 1,000 students are Sunni Muslims and half are Shiite Muslims, said educators have been intimidated into silence, and not just by government bureaucrats. "This is Iraqi society now -- if you say anything good about Saddam, you will be killed. If you say anything bad, you will be killed by someone else," he said. "We used to be only afraid of Saddam. Now there are many people to fear."

Some additions to the curriculum have already been made. The Shiite politicians who surged to power after Hussein fell insisted that books on Islamic history be infused with more information about figures revered by Shiites, such as Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. They also removed all references to the "Persian enemy," the once-mandatory description of Iran, a Shiite theocracy.

But the silence of the history texts on the subject of Hussein's rule remains a particular concern, educators say. So far, it has meant different lessons taught in different regions, cementing already pronounced fissures.

In the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, where Hussein's army carried out a brutal campaign of killings and forced relocations in 1988, teachers lecture freely on the atrocities committed against their relatives.

But in Tikrit, the hub of the area north of Baghdad where Hussein was born, history teachers take a starkly different approach. "We clarify for them that some of the information they get is incorrect and not precise," said Khaldoon Yunis, who teaches history at a local boys' school. "We tell them the reality of how the Persians are the enemy and hate the Arabs. And of how Saddam is a historical leader for the entire Arab nation."

Mohammed Abdul Rahman, a provincial education official in Anbar province, a restive, Sunni Arab-majority swath of western Iraq, said the different teachings were "the start of separation among the people, especially the youth."

"You have the Sunni teacher telling his students that the war with Iran was honest and that Iran is the enemy," he said. "On the other hand, the Shiite teacher tells his students that the war was caused by the Saddam regime against a friendly country and that Iraq lost."

In mixed areas such as Baghdad, teachers say they mostly follow the letter of the text, sometimes confounding students.

"I have so many questions," said Ali Muhammad Dawoud, 14, a student at Mansour who will take his history exams in two months. "Right now the only answers I get are from my friends, my parents or on television."

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.


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