By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/4/2004 12:49:02 PM ET 2004-10-04T16:49:02

Four-year-old Beytool Hamid is going to school for the first time, but it's a very different school than her brothers and sisters attended.

Under Saddam, schools were militarized and secular. To revitalize the education system, the U.S. has spent $225 million to renovate 2,400 of Iraq's 18,000 schools, print nine million new textbooks and retrain one in 10 teachers.

Still, many Iraqis are opting out of the public school system.

Under Saddam, Beytool's school was only allowed to teach the strict, state-approved curriculum. But now, it's a private school and they are free to teach whatever they like. And in a sign of the changing times here, the focus is now overwhelmingly on Islamic education. Instead of teaching the alphabet, the goal in Beytool's class is to memorize 28 basic verses from the Koran, and learn how to wash before prayers.

The school's director says: "the most important thing for a child to know is religion."

At universities too, religious hard-liners are taking hold — at Baghdad's Mustansiriya, self-appointed morality police now guard the campus gate. They recently sent a grad student away because she was wearing pants.

The director of Iraq's education ministry opposes the fundamentalist trend.

"Radicals are trying to use their new freedom to deny the freedom of others," says Dr. Ala al-Din Alwan.

But he admits the chaos makes it difficult to control.

And the government has no control over hundreds of Shiite religious seminaries — known as the Howza — teaching Islamic theory and law once banned under Saddam.

Toka al-Khafagi dropped out of Baghdad University to attend the Howza.

"I wanted to learn about the roots of my faith," Khafagi says. "Now I can."

Critics say the rigid Howza curriculum has its shortcomings.

"What we risk having 10 or 15 years down the line is an absence of lawyers, an absence of technicians, doctors, engineers who are able to push the country forward," says Middle East analyst Turi Munthe.

The battle is under way for the minds of Iraq's future generation.

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