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Iraq, also known in official circles as the Republic of Iraq, is a mid-size country in Western Asia, with a total geographic area of roughly 169,000 square miles.  An important Middle Eastern country that comprises most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern portion of the Syrian Desert and the northern section of the Arabian desert, Iraq shares land borders to the northwest with Syria, to the north with Turkey, to the east with Iran, to the southwest with Jordan and to the south with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The country also has a narrow coastline on the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Through the center of Iraq flow both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, providing a bit of an oasis in this mostly steppe and desert landscape.  Together they help create a wide swath of arable land that helps to agriculturally sustain the Iraqi people.  Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, is strategically located in the central-eastern portion of the country.
 
According to the latest available census data, Iraq has a total population of approximately 31 million, which, from an ethnic standpoint, is fairly diverse. Although official records regarding the ethnic makeup of Iraq are hard to come by (Iraq does not have a formal census system), the CIA World Factbook estimates that Arabs account for 75 percent of the population, followed by Kurds, at 15-20 percent of the total, and Turkmen, Assyrian and others comprising the final 5-10 percent.  The population also includes small numbers of Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, along with Circassians, Armenians and a small group of people of African descent, dating back to the legacy of slavery prior to the 9th century. 
 
Both Arab and Kurdish are considered official languages in Iraq, the latter used most commonly by the large Kurdish community.  Other languages spoken in the country, albeit to a lesser extent, include Aramaic, South Azeri, Armenian and Persian, and English is the most commonly spoken European language.  Islam is the national religion of Iraq and is practiced by nearly 95 percent of the population.  Of these, an estimated 65 percent are Shia Muslims and the remaining 35 percent practice the Sunni branch.  Christianity and a few other religions are practiced by approximately 5 percent of the population.
 
Education in Iraq
 
Education in Iraq is headed up by the national Ministry of Education and public school is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 12.  The system of education is divided between five levels:  kindergarten, primary education, lower secondary education, upper secondary education and higher or tertiary education.
 
At the kindergarten level, which is non-compulsory, children are prepared for primary education as they learn to play and work cooperatively with one another.  They are also introduced to books and reading, as well as art, music and other basic skills.
 
Primary education in Iraq, which spans 6 years (Grade 1 through Grade 6) beginning at age six, is the only compulsory school level, after which a national test is administered to measure a student’s “suitability” for the upper grades.  The primary school curriculum is very diverse, featuring subjects such as mathematics, Arabic and Kurdish, science, social, cultural and religious studies, history, geography, art, music and physical education.
 
Lower and upper secondary schools, called middle schools and high schools in Iraq, offer a combination of academic studies and vocational education, the former leading to university admission and the latter to a potential position in the Iraqi workforce.
 
Prior to the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq had one of the top education systems in the region, boasting 100 percent attendance rates and a student body that generally outperformed that of neighboring countries.  However, due to the extensive war in the 1990s, school attendance decreased dramatically, as education funding was cut and war-torn economic conditions forced children into the workforce.  Following the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent regime change, the Coalitional Provisional Authority, with significant assistance from the international community, undertook a complete reform of the Iraqi educational system, beginning with the removal of the previously deep Baathist ideology from the curriculum and substantial increases in teacher salaries.
 
The battles in Iraq are finally over and the ruthless dictator has permanently been deposed.  However, while the educational system is slowly recovering and rebuilding in the country, many challenges still exist in the wake of nearly two decades of war.  According to authorities, an estimated 80 percent of Iraq’s 15,000 school buildings need rehabilitation, and many lack basic sanitary facilities, libraries and laboratories. 
 

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