Iraq ‘has no regrets’ about getting tough with Kurds

Kurdish women protest outside Irbil airport on Sept. 29 against the flight ban issued by the Iraqi federal government. (AP)
Updated 12 October 2017
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Iraq ‘has no regrets’ about getting tough with Kurds

BAGHDAD: Iraq issued arrest warrants on Wednesday for the chairman of the Kurdistan Region’s referendum commission and two aides over last month’s vote for Kurdish independence.
A spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council said the warrants for Hendreen Mohammed and his assistants were issued by a Baghdad court for “violating a valid court ruling which considered the independence vote invalid.”
A Justice Ministry official in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dismissed the decision as “politically motivated.” He said the KRG’s judiciary was independent of Baghdad and did not recognize its legal rulings.
The Iraqi central government has taken punitive measures over the independence vote. It imposed an international flight ban, stopped financial transactions with the region, and filed formal requests to Turkey and Iran to stop trade with the KRG and deal exclusively with Baghdad on oil exports.
On Tuesday, the oil ministry ordered state oil companies to begin restoring the crude oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey, bypassing Kurdistan. The pipeline has been out of commission since it was blown up by militants in 2014.
“The Iraqi government is serious … and has no regrets relative to its position,” Ali Al-Alaq, a Shiite member of parliament and one of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s political advisers, told Arab News.
“The government has become more assertive in dealing with many matters such as the financial violations, the smuggling of oil, airports, and the land border crossings.”
Baghdad sent special military units and federal Border Patrol officers to Turkey and Iran this month for deployment near the joint crossings. The three countries established a joint operations room to discuss related details; senior security officials have exchanged visits since the referendum took place. Iraqi officials said a senior Turkish official would visit Iraq today to discuss alternatives to the crossings.
“It is not easy for Turkey or Iran to shut down the crossings, despite the threats that the referendum represents to their national security,” a senior Iraqi federal official involved in talks told Arab News.
“The sessions are continuing and all sides are looking to find appropriate alternatives, so we can move to either shut down the crossings or regain control of them. We have to be pragmatic, and finding appropriate alternatives to these crossings needs time.”
Iraqi Kurdistan region has two official crossings with Turkey and Iran, Ebrahim Al-Khalil in Dehuk and Hajj Omran in Sulaimaniya. Kurdistan has refused to hand over control of the crossings, but the KRG has said nothing about creating new ones outside Kurdistan.
“There have been many attempts, but nothing so far but talks,” Lt. Gen. Jabar Yaour, general secretary of the Peshmerga Ministry in the KRG, told Arab News. “Opening new crossings needs a long time.
“Up to now, the crossing ports in Kurdistan are working and the export of oil has not stopped.”


Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

Updated 19 September 2018
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Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

  • Schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity
  • Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates

RAMALLAH: As the teacher pointed to the large touch screen, her first-grade classroom came alive. With the click of a link, an animated character popped up on the screen, singing and dancing as it taught the children how to read.
The day’s lesson was the Arabic letter “Raa,” and the screen displayed cartoon pictures of objects that contain the letter — desert, chair and pomegranate — as the teacher asked the children to come up with other words. The students smiled and sang along.
Just a few years ago, such scenes were unthinkable in most Palestinian classrooms. Like elsewhere in the Arab world, schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity.
With an eye to the future, some Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates.
“The students don’t need to memorize things. They need to understand first,” said Ruba Dibas, the principal of the Ziad Abu Ein School in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Then they need to express their understanding through writing, speaking, drawing, acting.”
Ziad Abu Ein is one of 54 “smart teaching schools” introduced last year. This year, the number tripled. By 2020, all 1,800 public schools in the West Bank are to be part of the program.
Dibas said the goal is to eliminate testing from the classroom. Instead, she said students need to enjoy the learning process to absorb information.
On a recent day, her school was buzzing with activity.
In a fifth-grade classroom, each child had a tablet and the teacher guided them through an Arabic lesson, using her own tablet to give assignments. Third-grade students went to the smart board, playing a game to learn the multiplication table.
In other classes, students drew cartoons to learn the physics of how airplanes fly. An English class did a project about evaporation.
Four third-graders recently learned about self-esteem in a lesson called “learning by drama.” They performed a short skit about a shy girl who discovers a passion for journalism and grows up to become a successful reporter.
Their teacher, Sawsan Abdat, said the children learned an important lesson that day — that they need to find what they are good at.
After initial skepticism from parents last year, enrollment at the school has nearly doubled. This year’s first grade has nearly tripled to 43 students.
“I love the school,” said Malak Samara, a 9-year-old fourth grader. “We learn and enjoy. We learn and play.”
These techniques are a radical departure from a system in which generations of students were forced to memorize information and cram for exams under the stern watch of an authoritarian teacher who in some cases would beat them with a stick if they could not complete their work.
But with the unemployment rate for new college graduates hitting 56 percent, according to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, officials realized that something had to change.
Education Minister Sabri Seidam also introduced vocational training in grades seven, eight and nine last year to meet the needs of the market.
“Society needs singers, carpenters, cleaners, athletes, sergeants,” he said. “We can’t just produce engineers and doctors.”
Youth unemployment, particularly among university graduates, is a major problem across the Arab world. It was considered a driving force behind the Arab Spring revolutions that rocked the region in 2011.
Arab governments used to absorb new graduates, often in civil service jobs, but they can no longer afford to do that, in part because of the region’s “youth bulge.”
The private sector offers limited opportunities, leaving large numbers of young graduates unemployed throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“There is no greater challenge facing the MENA region in its efforts to build a future based on inclusive growth than job creation,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report early this year. It noted that 60 percent of the region’s population is under 30, the world’s second-youngest after sub-Saharan Africa.
“Pressures on the region’s labor markets are rising. In the past five years, the region’s working-age population increased by 50.2 million, and 27.6 million people joined the labor force. Yet employment increased by only 25.4 million,” it said.
Others in the Mideast have tried to make similar changes. In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Education Ministry this year is providing students with tablets, along with a new curriculum that enhances critical thinking.
The ministry said it is also trying to improve the level of instruction by increasing training and wages for teachers, building more classrooms and creating a more modern classroom through digital learning facilities. The government this year secured a $500 million loan from the World Bank to help fund the reforms.
For now, it appears too soon to say whether the reforms can make a difference.
The region’s authoritarian governments might encourage education reforms as an economic necessity but could balk in the future at efforts to nurture a new generation versed in critical thinking. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, governments in the region have increasingly stifled expression.
Schools across the Arab world face other obstacles as well. A 2015 study by the UN culture and education agency UNESCO talked about chronic underfunding, a lack of qualified teachers and increased class sizes throughout the region.
Syrian schools have been devastated by a seven-year civil war, while many schools in neighboring Lebanon have been overwhelmed by Syrian refugees. US cuts in funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees have jeopardized the school year for some 500,000 students, most of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank, along with a decade-long blockade over Gaza, continues to stifle the Palestinian economy.
“Education in the Arab world is in a very bad condition. The salaries of teachers are very poor, the classes are overcrowded, and schools lack the essential infrastructure,” said Saeda Affouneh, director of the E-Learning Center at Al-Najah University in the West Bank.
She praised the changes taking place in Palestinian schools.
“But this new system faces real challenges in the Palestinian schools,” she warned. “They need to train the teachers and to provide the proper resources.”