By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 16, 2008 - For schoolchildren in the southern Baghdad area, getting an education has become a difficult and even dangerous prospect in recent years. In some cases, supplies were short and facilities were in disrepair. Sometimes the teachers weren't there. In a few cases, the schools themselves were all but gone. The area where the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team arrived in June 2007 had long been an insurgent stronghold, with many villages controlled by al-Qaeda terrorists who kept children, especially girls, from attending school. With no coalition or Iraqi security forces presence, local schools suffered the same fate as many farms and businesses in the area. They were looted and damaged, and even became battlegrounds.
"About two years ago, the Ministry of Education ordered all of the teachers out of the rural areas because the security situation was so bad," said Army Capt. Trista Mustaine, education advisor to the Baghdad 7 embedded provincial reconstruction team, which works with 2nd BCT soldiers to rebuild the local infrastructure and economy.
The area is now more secure than it has been in years, with Iraqi soldiers and police establishing a presence and preparing to hold gains made by 2nd BCT, which is scheduled to redeploy in July.
In addition to repairing critical infrastructure and breathing new life into the damaged economy, the 2nd BCT and Baghdad 7 embedded PRT have spent millions to keep schools open and make it possible for children to pursue an education.
With the school year now over for children in the area, it's a chance for workers to complete renovations and building projects throughout the 2nd BCT's area of operation.
Perhaps the most intense activity is in the "Banshee" area of operations, which belongs to soldiers of Battery B, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery. Four school-improvement projects are under way in their sector, with a combined estimated cost of more than $1 million.
When the soldiers came into the area, they set up Joint Security Site W-1 at the site of Hader School, said Army Capt. Richard Aaron, battery commander.
"When we first moved into the [area] in June of last year, it was initially going to be a temporary patrol base," said Aaron, a native of Middleboro, Mass. "School was out of session, and it was a secure building we could use."
The nearby Menahay School was occupied by al-Qaeda insurgents, who eventually destroyed it using homemade explosives. Students of Tatwir School suffered worse, as al-Qaida operatives rigged the school with explosives, thinking Americans would come there to occupy it, Aaron said. The soldiers cleared the school, losing an explosives-clearing in the process.
With no schoolhouse to go to, students of Menahay School took classes in a private home, with local volunteers serving as teachers.
"A lot of them were former teachers, some without credentials, but who had been teaching in the past. They had the books, and they just volunteered to help out," Aaron said.
Mustaine said that in the absence of licensed teachers, volunteers have helped out in other areas, too. Like many other Iraqi public servants, they often worked for long periods without being paid. In some cases, members of the local "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group paid them.
A new school to replace the Hader School is being built 200 meters from the original site. The estimated cost for that project is $500,000. In total, more than $2.2 million has been spent so far on schools from Commander's Emergency Response Program funds administered by 2nd BCT, with another $500,000 worth of projects currently funded.
Although reconstruction costs largely have been provided by coalition forces up to now, the Iraqi government is taking up the task and helping get local schools repaired and reopened before the next school year begins.
In Sayifiyah, the Maahmoon School is being renovated with Iraqi government funding from the Baghdad Provincial Council, the only school in 2nd BCT's area to receive such funding. Budget execution for projects has been a problem for Iraqi government ministries across the board, Mustaine said. Fortunately, a new line of funding has come through for schools in the form of the Iraqi Commander's Emergency Response Program, which uses Iraqi government money within the framework of the coalition's Commander's Emergency Response Program.
"I think the biggest success in capacity building is I-CERP," Mustaine said. "It's Iraqi money, filtered through the U.S. Treasury and implemented jointly by coalition forces and the [Iraqi government]. It's a step toward building capacity and gets [the Iraqi government] spending their own money. Currently, we have eight schools funded with I-CERP and three pending funding."
I-CERP is currently providing more than $980,000 for school projects in the area.
At the Alemia School in Arab Jabour, I-CERP is helping to finish what coalition and community efforts started. Like Tatwir School, Alemia School was damaged by insurgents, who looted equipment and left explosives behind.
Within days after soldiers cleared out the school, students were back in class, but lots of work remained to be done, said Army Capt. James Anthony, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment.
"We did some minor repairs, just to keep the school going, fixing windows and doors," said Anthony, a native of Byhalia, Miss. Former teachers came back to teach, working for free at first, until Iraq's Education Ministry stepped up to cover their salaries.
After getting teachers paid, the next big challenge was getting the extensive damage repaired. I-CERP committed $445,000 to pay for the work, and repairs are scheduled to be completed in August. Anthony said it has been a community effort from the start.
"One of the great things about the contractor working at this school is that he has taken a lot of workers from the area." Anthony said. "You have a lot of people from the community actually working on the school that their children attend."
As he and his soldiers near redeployment in July, Aaron said, he feels good about the work they have done. "We've made a huge impact on the community with the school, and with other projects we've done," he said.
Now that the area is safe again and schools are getting the attention they need, the Iraqi government is ready to re-invest in a more significant way.
"As of about a month ago, the Ministry of Education has ordered the teachers to return to their rural schools," Mustaine said.
Thanks to gains made by 2nd Brigade Combat Team, she said, government officials can work freely in the area to make sure their schools have what they need to teach the children.
"Our goal is to provide accessible education for everyone. We have started the ball rolling, and the [Iraqi government] will keep it going in the future," she said.
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves with the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)