By Army Sgt. 1st Class Christina Bhatti
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 8, 2009 - Some 300 girls in blue jumpers and white head scarves stood in formation on the school's courtyard. The chill in the morning air rose in puffs as they chatted, happily anticipating the formal opening of their new school. "Today is a good day," said Saeed Jassim Hameed al-Mashhadani, a tribal sheik in Tarmiyah, Iraq. "This day marks a beginning of education for these girls."
The Huda Girls' School in Tarmiyah, northwest of Baghdad, officially reopened its doors Jan. 5 in a ceremony that featured speeches, poems and songs. The school provides education to about 950 girls who attend classes at various times throughout the day.
Built in 1982, the building first was used as dormitory, but transformed into a school for agriculture in 1995. Since then, it has transformed again into primary and high schools specializing in the sciences.
"This is really something big for the people. This is a fort of science," Muhamad Ibrihim Jassim, administrative supervisor for the Ministry of Education in Tarmiyah, said about the school's reopening. "This is the largest school in the area."
The Ministry of Education had long recognized the school for its excellence. That was until 2003, when it became the scene of violence during major combat operations and slowly ceased to function, said Malcom Phelps, a senior education advisor for the coalition's embedded provincial reconstruction team attached in Multinatioonal Division Baghdad to the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
The school, located near a joint security station, was the launching point of ambushes, homemade-bomb attacks and sniper fire against coalition forces and the then-nascent Iraqi security forces.
After a cautious stability was reached in the area in 2006, soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division began projects to rebuild the badly war-damaged school.
During the process, a major terror plan was thwarted. Soldiers discovered a command wire leading from the school's outer perimeter to one of the rooms. Inside the room, the troops discovered five artillery shell explosives. The planned insurgent attack also included two large explosive-filled propane tanks buried under the school's floor and numerous projectiles planted under electrical conduits in front of each classroom.
"This was a major setback," said Army 1st Lt. Erik Peterson, a civil-military affairs officer assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's Company A, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment. "If they went off, not only would the building have been destroyed, many lives would have been lost."
More damage was caused by removing the explosives, Peterson said. Engineer crews had to pull up the floor and take down walls brick by brick to ensure there was no longer a threat built into the structure.
Eventually, those involved in the plot were captured or killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
"Even though this was a setback, we had to try again," Peterson said. "This is the only secondary school in the city. If it wasn't rebuilt, there would be no place for these girls to go to school and get a good education."
About $300,000 of Iraqi and U.S. funds were spent to rebuild and refurbish the school, which contains 18 classrooms, science labs, an administration suite and an auditorium.
Now that the school is open, it faces many of the same issues plaguing the entire education system of Iraq.
"We have so many students," Jassim said, adding that the girls now go to school in shifts to help alleviate the overcrowding. "We need more buildings so we can effectively teach these students."
Peterson said more school projects are in the works, and that he hopes more schools will open soon.
More teachers also are needed, but Jassim said he is confident that problem will be solved in the coming years.
"All of the teachers we currently have graduated from this school," he said. "They belong to this area. Some of these girls will do the same thing, and we will continue to prosper like we did before the fighting."
Jassim said he is sure the area is safe now.
"There is nothing more to be scared of," he said. "These girls can come to school in peace."
Despite the peace and stability in the area, a symbol of violence still looms in the background. Clearly visible from inside the school's compound is the brightly colored dome of the Ghalani Mosque. This mosque is a known safe haven for terror and frequently broadcasts anti-coalition and Iraqi security messages. But Jassim said this will not deter his efforts and those of his teachers to give the students the education they deserve.
"It is our duty to provide the best education possible," he said. "We have been charged with that duty – and we will prevail."
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Christina Bhatti serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)