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Students in Iraq are getting a brand new textbook this year. The Iraqi Department of Education has finally finished its history of the country which reflects the enormous changes that country has been through lately, and it includes historical events that were once forbidden topics. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Iraq's teachers will be changing history this year, or at least changing what their students are reading about for homework. Six years after getting rid of Saddam Hussein, hundreds of fawning references to dictator have finally been taken out of Iraq's official history.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

LAWRENCE: Students at a boys' high school in central Baghdad collected new textbooks on the first few days of school, stepping around a puddle where a leaky water pipe has flooded the yard.

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LAWRENCE: History teacher Naba Abbas is beginning a lesson today about the crusades. The changes in the curriculum come later, she says, in the modern history section.

Ms. NABA ABBAS (History Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: So much of the material regarding Saddam Hussein has been excised, she says. The old books referred constantly to the triumphs of the former dictator.

Much has also been added, says Abbas, like how the former regime ordered the poison gas attack that killed thousands of people in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. New sections describe how Iraq's vast marshlands in the south were drained during the dictator's repression of Shiite uprisings in the 1990s. It's taken several years to reexamine three decades of Saddam, says Abbas, and the events after the American invasion of 2003 are still too fresh to be in the book.

Ms. ABBAS: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: I can't teach beyond what's written in the books, says Abbas, but the boys here have witnessed the recent events, so they don't need to be taught about them.

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LAWRENCE: But the old Iraq isn't too far behind. Abbas was, in fact, the only teacher at the high school who agreed to talk about the new curriculum -perhaps a reflection of the memories of violence and fear that are still raw here.

Her students, however, eagerly expressed their opinions.

SUDEIF (Student): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: An 18-year-old named Sudeif, wearing tight jeans and a heavy metal T-shirt, says that the new textbooks are teaching Iraqi students much more about the outside world. He's very happy not to have to read all about Saddam Hussein. As for America's actions in Iraq, his classmate Jaafar, a skinny boy with a peach-fuzz moustache, says it's a big topic of discussion, even if it's not assigned.

JAAFAR (Student): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: America is full of brilliant people, but we have some anger at America because of the military occupation, he says.

The boys start to discuss the actions of a man that some of them consider a hero, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the TV reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush last year.

SUDIEF: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: They are divided about whether Zeidi is a hero for standing up to Bush or a disgrace for behaving so rudely. The boys also disagree about the amount of religion included in the new textbooks. Sudeif is happy that the story of Shiite martyrs Ali and Hussein is included now, although some students worry that there's too much religion in the new text book. The important thing, says Sudeif, is that they feel safe discussing it.

SUDEIF: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: We didn't have that freedom before, says Sudeif, and no one dared to criticize the government or the things that we saw, even inside your family.

On that, all the students agree, and they happily add that as high school seniors this year, they're all 18 years old, so they can vote in nationwide elections next January. Then they'll be doing more than discussing Iraq's new history. They'll be helping to write it.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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