A group of anxious-looking Iraqi mothers huddled behind concrete barriers and concertina wire in the shadow of two Iraqi police pickup trucks. In the distance, US military vehicles could be seen patrolling the neighborhood.
One mother shut her eyes and started muttering prayers while clasping a string of worry beads between her hands.
This was the scene Monday outside a school in Baghdad's Baiyaa neighborhood, where hundreds of Iraqi teenage girls took a chemistry exam as part of the standardized national exams for high school diplomas held this time each year. The exams, which started on June 26, will end on Wednesday.
Last year's tests were marred by unprecedented incidents of mass cheating, bribe-taking, and sheer lawlessness. In many places, militiamen and insurgents strolled casually into exam centers and forced officials, often at gunpoint, to allow cheating. But this year, aided by the fact that most Baghdad neighborhoods have been turned into walled compounds protected by US and Iraqi troops, authorities took often draconian measures to avoid a repetition of such scenes.
"Last year, the outlaws took advantage of the brittle security situation and caused unprecedented chaos during the final exams. It was truly a mark of utter shame on our education system as a whole," says Ibrahim Abdul-Zahra, a proctor overseeing a geography high school exam at Baghdad University Monday.
"But this year it's a different story," he adds. "We want the government to take the same measures each year until the security situation improves."
Mr. Abdul-Zahra says that he had to evict only three students caught cheating and contend with one of them telling him, "I am going to kill you," before being dragged out by security guards.
In the 1970s and '80s, Iraq's public and higher-education systems were the pride of the Arab world. The impact of international sanctions in the 1990s ushered in a period of decline that was worsened by the disruption and sectarian conflict that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
In addition to an exodus by Iraq's best and brightest since then, violence has also taken its toll on the system. The Ministry of Human Rights reported at the end of June that 340 academics were killed around Iraq from 2005-2007.
According to the Ministry of Education, 28 percent of Iraq's 17-year-olds in the center and south of the country took their final exams in 2007. Only 40 percent passed, a decrease from 2006, when the figure was 60 percent.
This year, the Ministry of Education turned several schools around Baghdad into secured exam centers for girls. Boys, considered the worst offenders last year, were forced to take exams at colleges and universities, which already enjoy high levels of protection by Iraqi security forces. This means everyone has had to commute to these locations from all over the city. Everyone has been thoroughly searched before entering the exam hall.
Anxious to show their control, Iraqi officials flanked by machine-gun-wielding guards and accompanied by local TV crews visited several centers during exam sessions over the past two weeks.
One education official in western Baghdad said this was an opportunity for students and parents from neighborhoods divided along Sunni and Shiite lines to mingle.
"It's the year of national unity exams," says Jasim Jabbar.
At the Baiyaa exam center for girls, a woman who gave her name as Umm Israa (mother of Israa) describes what she and her two children, a boy and a girl sitting for the final exams separately, have had to contend with this year.
The family lives in Abu Dsheir, an overwhelmingly Shiite area next to predominantly Sunni Dora, which until recently had been among the capital's most violent spots. Umm Israa gets up before dawn to cook lunch. She then accompanies her daughter Israa to the exam center in Baiyaa, in southwestern Baghdad. Many of her neighbors have organized carpools to make the trip, which takes about an hour. She waits outside for hours with other mothers as their daughters take the exam. Some spread sheets on the ground and sit under a tree, turning their gathering into a picnic of sorts for commiseration. All say they are too fearful to let their daughters venture this far from Abu Dhseir alone.
While waiting for her daughter, Umm Israa calls her son regularly to make sure he's fine. He is taking his exams in a predominantly Sunni area next to Bab al-Muadham in northern Baghdad.
"It's one big production every day," grumbles Umm Israa, adding that their hardship is compounded by chronic electricity and water shortages.
Standing nearby, Nibras Said, another Abu Dsheir resident, awaits her sister Luma, who is taking the exam.
Ms. Said, a college freshman, describes the situation last year when she took the same exams. One time, she says, militiamen stormed into an exam hall in Abu Dsheir to force proctors to let students cheat. Another time, the headmaster objected and was briefly kidnapped and threatened by the militiamen before relenting, she says.
"Last year, any loser on the street was able to cheat. Many of these people, who can't even write their names, got into medical school," quips a lady who gave her name as Umm Duaa.
As she complains, anguished-looking girls come out of the exam complaining only about how difficult the questions were. "It's not fair – we did not even have a chemistry teacher all year," says Rasha Anis.
Other girls and mothers chime in, describing how the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad and continued security fears have meant that many public schools operate with a skeletal staff. They say they can't afford private tutors, either.
In an extreme case of exam rage over difficult questions, Education Minister Khudayer al-Khuzaie was confronted about the issue by a group of angry students during a visit to an exam center on June 26. The standoff quickly descended into a melee, prompting Mr. Khuzaie's guards to shoot at the crowd, wounding three, according to witnesses.
The ministry described the incident as "an assassination attempt" on Khuzaie.
One of the wounded students interviewed at the time by Al-Sharqiya TV had this to say: "They searched us thoroughly before we went into the exam hall…. How could have we assassinated him – with our pencils?"