Ihab Thaer couldn't afford the bribes some of his friends at his central Baghdad high school paid for a preview of final exam questions. He wishes instead that he could have benefited from a different tip to the scale: a visit by militias to force proctors to let him cheat.
Over the past two weeks, Iraq has seen an unprecedented level of interference by militias and insurgents as students have taken national exams for middle and high school diplomas. Cheating and bribing have also marred the process – as have threats by parents to uncooperative teachers.
Iraq's schools and universities were once the pride of the Arab world. But one expert says that what has happened inside exam halls, along with the plummeting standards of the education system, are further symptoms of the systematic unraveling of Iraqi society and its institutions.
"There is real terror going on at some of these exams," says Asma Jamil, a sociologist at Baghdad University, adding that students feel that Iraq's instability gives them the right to cheat, while armed groups want to win the sympathy of the public.
"It's a result of greater social decay," she says, "and it feeds it by graduating a generation of aggressive, sometimes extremist, students who have very little capability for critical thinking."
The Ministry of Education recently solicited solutions to the problem from her and other experts, she says, but that there has been little follow-up. "We are witnessing," she says, "the complete collapse of the education system."
Education Minister Khudayer al-Khuzaie says that all the talk of violations at exam centers were rumors and part of a smear campaign. "This is all part of a scheme to undermine the political process in general and the ministry in particular," Mr. Khuzaie said in an interview, in reference to efforts by some Sunni parties to bring down the Shiite-led government. He says that the ministry is investigating the reports and that he is prepared to offer rewards for proof of cheating.
According to Ms. Jamil, the 1970s and '80s saw great strides that set Iraq apart in the region. Public education and mandatory elementary schooling were enshrined in the constitution, and a literacy drive in the '70s was highly effective in building on gains made in the previous three decades, particularly among girls.
The system started declining in the 1990s after the first Gulf War, when economic sanctions and poverty prompted some officials to sell exam questions or award fictitious degrees.
This year, violence and curfews in parts of the city have meant that students only attended three months out of the seven-month school year. Academics and students have been regularly targeted, prompting the exodus of some of Iraq's most qualified teachers. Just last week, Nuhad al-Rawi, the assistant dean of Baghdad University, was gunned down in Baiyaa, a particularly violent section of the city.
"Efforts to preserve Iraqi children's fragile educational progress are fundamental to help children survive the crisis," said the UN mission in Iraq in a May report that painted a rather bleak picture of education in Iraq.
Outside his school, Mr. Thaer, a thin teen with a goatee, stands with his companions against the outer wall. The school, founded in 1949, used to be called Al-Orfan (Knowledge) but, like many others, was renamed after a revered Shiite cleric to reflect the taste of the new ruling Islamist Shiite elite.
Fresh out of a physics exam, they say that about 30 of 120 students paid bribes ranging from $300 per exam to $2,800 for all seven to get questions early and to take in cheat sheets. Many who offered bribes were even put in a separate hall, they say.
One student, who spoke out of earshot of the others and did not wish to give his name, says that he had accompanied five friends, including the son of a former minister, to the principal's house. "I saw them writing their names on the dollar bills they handed to the principal," he charges, adding that proctors and ministry officials were in on the scheme.
The principal refused to comment or to allow reporters in his school, but head proctor Nadhem Jabbar came out and denied any cheating.
Thaer says that the Ministry of Education should have made the exams simpler or instructed proctors to be more lax, given "our exceptional and difficult circumstances."
His family was recently forced out of their home in Dora, a volatile southern Baghdad district, he says, because they were Shiites. They barely scrape by and he can't study at night because they have no electricity.
"In other places, the militias were much more considerate of the students' situation," he says.
A student who attends the Imam Ali high school, formerly the Eternal River, in the northwestern district of Hurriyah, an area that has become almost all Shiite, recounts how two men who appeared to be with the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr walked into the biology exam last week.
"They asked us if the proctors were bothering us, and we said that we needed to cheat because the questions were very difficult," he says. "They told the proctors to allow us to cheat."
His relative, a student at Hala bint Khuwailed middle school for girls in the western Al-Amel area, said they, too, were visited by militiamen during exams. She also had to contend with the risks of getting to school for exams. "During one exam, stray bullets whizzed inside the hall so we had to rush to the basement," she says.
In a sign that Mr. Sadr isn't in control of all his followers, an aide in Baghdad, Muhanad al-Mussawi, says those who interfered in exams were "rogue elements that did not belong to the Mahdi Army."
An official in the western Baghdad education board acknowledges bribes and interference in exams by militiamen in Shiite neighborhoods, but says that they were not the only culprits. At several exam centers in Amariyah, Dora, and Jamiaa, areas where Sunni insurgents hold sway, teachers were forced by gunmen to write answers on the blackboard, he says. The official, who requested anonymity, accused the minister of doing very little to correct the exam violations and of staffing the ministry with loyalists eager to infuse Shiite symbols and teachings into the system.
Education Minister Khuzaie, a devout Shiite, said he has gone out of his way to make sure Sunnis were well represented at the ministry and that a national conference will be held this month, after which curriculums will be revised "to better reflect the diversity of Iraqi society."
A teacher in Baiyaa, who gave her name as Umm Sarah, says militiamen stormed into her school and ordered proctors out of one exam. "One had a pistol under his shirt. We were terrified," she says.
In a separate incident, she says, parents confronted her and others and were about to beat them for not allowing cheating, before being rescued by a police patrol. "I have quit proctoring. I have been a teacher for 23 years, and I am deeply offended by all this. Iraq had a stellar reputation when it came to education," she says.