LOS ANGELES – The rebuilding process is underway in Iraq, and an important part of the process is not just building up structures, but building up young minds.
Before Saddam Hussein's reign, Iraq was considered the model for education in the Arab world. But now only half of the country's students graduate high school. And it may take some time before literacy can catch up with the years of tyranny.
"It's a huge challenge to be able to de-Saddamize and de-Baathize the curriculum," said Richard Dekmejian, professor of political science at the University of Southern California. "All of the textbooks have to be changed, all the educational materials, all the videos, the visual aids, all that has to be changed."
The Bush administration has hired the Washington, D.C.-based firm Creative Associates International to start reforming Iraqi schools, providing supplies and a curriculum that is more fact-based than the pro-Saddam propaganda previously taught.
CAI is planning to rebuild campuses, restock supplies, and re-open classes by the fall. Decisions about textbooks and the curriculum, however, will be completely under local control.
"I don't think we're going to impose ourselves. But we also know, and have already been asked, to be there with our tools," said CAI's Charito Kravant, adding the group's goal is to "start the schools in a way that really demonstrates the transformation to a new Iraq" by Oct. 1.
Their first priorities include finding new spaces for schools that were destroyed, developing special programs for kids who have missed school for years, and training teachers and principals, some of whom had previously escaped Iraq and will now return.
Coalition forces fighting in Iraq were careful not to destroy public buildings like hospitals and schools. Some buildings were damaged in the fighting, of course. And more than a quarter century under Saddam left Iraq's education system in shambles.
Middle East expert Jerold Green, who works for the Rand Corporation, says Iraqi schools became storerooms for ammunition and showrooms for Saddam. The despot's face was in every book, his philosophy in every lesson.
Students even became spies, snitching on parents in exchange for food. Schools went without basic supplies and often without teachers, who fled for fear of offending the regime.
So many believe it wasn't the 25 days of war that crippled the Iraqi education system, but the 25 years of the Baath party.
"Iraq in general needs to be de-Baathified," said Green. "I think the speed with which the Baathism and the Saddamism disappear from Iraq is going to be amazing."
Getting pencils, books, teachers and students back in class is the easy part, experts say. But for kids who were raised singing songs to Saddam, adjusting to reading, writing, and arithmetic could be more difficult. And every Iraqi faction will want its say.
"What are you going to replace Saddam-ism with in the curriculum?" asked Dekmejian. "Are you going to replace it with Iraqi nationalism? Are you going to replace it with Shiite fundamentalism or Sunni fundamentalism?
"How do you fill the vacuum? That's the question."
Fox News' Amy C. Sims contributed to this report.