October 22, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — 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.

But the day was marred by violence and after sunset, car bombings in Baghdad killed at least 29 people, police said. In the areas of northern and western Iraq captured by the extremist group earlier this year — including the country’s second largest city of 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 class.

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. Nawal al-Mihamadawi, the school principal, said she believed the security measures taken were enough.

Authorties said the schools would have classes every Saturday for the rest of the year to make up for the delay. 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 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,” he said in a statement. 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 said she hoped her daughter would have a good 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, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to media.

After sundown, police said a car bomb exploded near small restaurants in Baghdad’s eastern district of Sadr city, killing 14 people and wounding 27. A car bomb near Kabab al-Badawi restaurant in downtown Baghdad killed 15 people and wounded 32, said police.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.