Saddam’s Teachers Return to the Classroom

May 4, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent


Baghdad- A school classroom is perhaps the last place a US administrator would want a high ranking Baath Party member. But, according to a drastic reversal in policy taken in April, that’s exactly where they’re going.

Christina Asquith

The US’s ‘Debaathification’ policy-under which senior Baath Party members were removed from government position, including 10,000 of school teachers-has been chalked up as a mistake in education.

This October, many of the teachers who were fired for their Baath Party membership will be returning to school. This recent reversal is a monumental decision for many reasons. Primarily, it’s the first big decision the Iraq ministry of education has made since ‘graduating’ from US control last month. (The US senior advisor, Leslie Arscht, is on her way back to Washington DC, and only a few Americans from her team will stay behind working out of the US embassy in education consulting positions.)

Second, it’s a step towards a policy of inclusiveness. The Debaathification policy instituted shortly after the war reflected a bitter drive for revenge among Iraqi exiles, and those who had suffered by not joining Saddam’s brutal regime. Baath Party teachers who had received many advantages, such as higher salaries, fancy cars and the ability to wield power over other teachers, would now be on the other end of the stick.

However, since school started in October, there’s been one major problem-where do they go? These teachers have been lining up at the education ministry, pleading for their jobs back. In most cases, teachers with a decade of experience were sent home-even while classrooms lacked teachers. They went unpaid. They had nothing to do but sit around, seethe, and eventually join resistance movements. It was the pedagogical equivalent of the new school principal arriving, and saying ‘All students who have been suspended are not welcome in classrooms,’ and then leaving them to roam the hallways.

From the beginning, Debaathification smacked of an ideological witch hunt. It’s impossible to prosecute someone for their political beliefs. Many Baath Party teachers argued that they were forced to join to become administrators or headmasters and they never believed in Saddam Hussein anyway; while others who felt most strongly against the US weren’t necessarily members of the Baath Party. Teachers used their ability to accuse someone of being a Baath Party member to exercise personal vendettas. Since many records were destroyed, a US administrator often had no way of knowing who was or wasn’t a Baath Party member. Thousands of teachers applied to be exempt from ‘Debaathification’ and the US promised to review their applications, but there wasn’t the time or staff. DeBaathification was complicated. Immediately after the war, the need for revenge was fierce, but a year on it’s a positive sign to see this step towards healing. After all, what exactly is the fear-that a teacher will produce a classroom of little Baath Party members? Teachers don’t have the power to convert a classroom of kids, especially not to an idea as discredited as Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

The Americans offense in Fallujah is doing a better job turning the nation against them-making them wistful for the order of Saddam’s days-than any one teacher could ever do.

Allowing the former Baath Party teachers back into the classroom is a democratic step. In Western countries, a school teachers is not asked whether they vote democratic or Republican. US schools are filled with Communists, Quakers, Free Masons, Libertarians. That is the freedom they enjoy, and yet these kinds of freedoms the US has been denying Iraqis in their policy of choose-pro-American-democracy-or-else.

Dr. Alwan has made it clear that teachers are expected not to involve politics in education. In Iraq, as in many western school systems, teachers would have little time to do much proselytising. They must follow to the letter a text book, upon which final exams are based. There’s almost no leeway in Iraq for a teacher to be creative or inventive even with the subject material, let alone veer off into political preachings.

A more important step will be the selection of the curriculum committee. Currently, Dr. Alwan is putting together teams of academics and school officials to revamp the entire curriculum and hundreds of textbooks. They will be discussing how to handle the sensitive subjects like the creation of the Baath Party, the rise of Saddam Hussein, the mass graves, the village of Halabja, after Saddam killed 5,000 Kurds in a chemical weapons attack. Most teachers are likely to follow these textbooks to the letter, and if there’s dissenting opinions the students will only benefit from understanding the complexity of history.

Lastly, the reversal of the ‘Debaathification’ policy reflects the style of Iraq education minister, Dr. Alwan, who is viewed in Iraq as highly successful for doing what few others have been able to do: bringing together all of Iraq’s groups.

At the universities, the students and professors are protesting over religious groups, largely because of the minister of higher education was selected by a governing council member that represents a radical Sunni group. In one of his first decisions, he began firing university administrators and putting his own religious appointees in place. On the contrary, Dr. Alwan has been known to invite all religious groups into his office for meetings. Before they had a chance to fight each other, he gave them a seat at the table. He gave them a voice. He told them that religion would be taught in schools, however it would be careful not to be seen as promoting Sunni or Shia. ‘He told them, if you step in and get involved, the other sides will also step in,’ a director of curriculum at the ministry of education told me. ‘It’s better to leave politics and religion out of the classroom.’ So far, they listened. Most Iraqis are not extremists. They take extreme measures when they feel it’s the only way for their voice to be heard. By bringing former Baath Party teachers into the discussion, Dr. Alwan has defeated a major enemy.

Christina Asquith’s is the author of the upcoming book “The Paper School” , about her experiences as a new, uncertified teacher in a Philadelphia school.

Christian’s revious columns and articles on education in Iraq can be found at

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