Large number of students avoid school due to economic difficulties, demotivated teachers.
BAGHDAD - Iraq's text books have changed significantly since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with chapters glorifying his victory over Iran and the invasion of Kuwait he ordered now scrapped from the curriculum.
But five years since his iron-fisted rule was crushed, students and teachers are still living in fear and despite attempts by the new Shiite-led government to remove Saddam from the public psyche, the president's legacy lives on.
Instead of Saddam's feared Baathist apparatchiks roaming campuses enforcing their will in the halls of learning, it is now hardline Shiite militiamen doing the same at some institutions.
"Militias are controlling the universities," said Ala'a Tawfiq, an 18-year-old computer student in Baghdad's renowned Al-Mustansiriyah University.
At the same time, various insurgent groups have university professors -- along with journalists, musicians and artists -- in their sights and colleges find it difficult to retain staff. Many have fled, some have been eliminated.
Rights activists say that more than 150 teachers and professors have been killed in the past five years.
On November 3, for example, gunmen stormed into the office of a school headmistress in Baghdad's Saydiyah neighbourhood and shot her dead.
"Students do not discuss politics while professors feel humiliated because they are unable to express their opinion as they could be kidnapped or killed," said a professor of biology at Baghdad University who preferred not to be named.
Salaries have improved, however. During the US-sponsored sanctions against Iraq, professors were paid a meagre amount of around 20 dollars a month.
"Now they are paid around 1,200 dollars," the professor said.
"But there was safety and security during Saddam's regime. There were no militias and armed groups targeting us. The government was not weak."
Primary school teachers, however, complain that their salaries have not kept pace with those of their colleagues in higher education and that their conditions are among the worst in the civil service.
'Teaching is not enough to have a decent life'
Samira Ahmed, 45, teaches Arabic at a primary school in Baghdad but says she struggles to make a decent living.
"Our salaries are far too low. Many teachers are demotivated. This has led to a decline in the quality of teaching," she said.
The average salary of a teacher during the former regime was around five dollars. It is now around 300 dollars.
"This is still not enough to have a decent life," Ahmed said, adding that sky-rocketing inflation has eroded currency valuations.
A total of 4.2 million pupils -- 56 percent of them boys -- are enrolled in some 11,200 primary schools across Iraq which employ a total of around 19,000 teachers, according to the education ministry.
There are nearly 1.5 million students in about 3,800 secondary schools, while the country has around 19 universities, nine technical colleges and 38 other educational institutions.
The ministry expects more than 5.5 million students to attend schools across Iraq in the next academic year which begins in September.
Before the US-led invasion in March 2003, but still during the US-sponsored sanctions era, the ministry of education used to print 25 percent of its new text books in Iraq and 25 percent in Jordan. The remaining needs were met by the second hand market. This practice continues.
Human rights activists say a large number of students still avoid school due to economic difficulties, a demotivated community of teachers and general frustration among parents.
"The school used to provide us with stationary, pencils and notebooks. But since the war we are without notebooks. Where has all the stationary disappeared?" asked Dima Omar, a secondary school student in Baghdad.
Adding to the problems has been the grim ground reality in a city like Baghdad that is congested, crowded and violent.
Teachers and students alike are often unable to reach classes on time due to traffic jams caused by the dozens of security checkpoints and long stretches of concrete blocks erected to thwart car bombs and mortar attacks.
"We are always late for our lectures. Students, professors ... everybody is late due to the concrete walls and traffic jams," said Ban Salam, 21, a civil engineering student at Baghdad University.
Many students and teachers take circuitous routes to reach their schools or universities -- variously avoiding dangerous routes.
Despite the concerns, students believe new forms of freedom are emerging for them.
"Earlier we had no Internet or other such resources and were unable to publish our research projects. But today we can," said a student named Salam.
They also no longer have to join the military service after finishing school as they did during the rule of Saddam.
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