BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nineteen 10-year-old boys and girls, all budding proteges at the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad, began the bright new morning yesterday by rising as one from their desks and intoning, "Long live Saddam Hussein."
On the descent, they continued in a chorus of voices simultaneously sweet and serious: "Long live the Baath Arab Socialist Party."
The first order of business was a short lecture on the historical foundation of Iraq's claim to Kuwait and foreign domination of the Arabian Peninsula.
"Is it true the original family of Kuwait is Jewish, and was brought there by the Americans?" asked one precocious little girl, her hair falling in dark braids almost as thick as her spindly little legs.
The teacher, a pretty young woman wearing a white blouse with embroidered flowers, smiled benignly. Her answer in its entirety, according to one of the official government translators who frequently accompany foreign journalists working in Iraq, was: "You know, the imperialists and Zionists sometimes used to choose betrayers of their country and agents of Zionism."
It is the beginning of another school year in Iraq. Only, this year, the Persian Gulf crisis gives a new meaning to the idea of education.
Every country has its myths to pass on to its children and unite its people in a sense of common endeavor, identity and pride. The Iraqi myths, however, have a particularly Orwellian edge this fall.
The Music and Ballet School, run by the Ministry of Culture and Information, is typical; it is distinguished from the others only by being a school dedicated to creative expression in a country with a tradition of artistic achievements dating back millenniums.
In the lobby of a one-story stucco schoolhouse, a Steinway baby grand piano stands next to the larger-than-life portrait of Saddam Hussein and just down the hall from the clock on the wall that is covered entirely by a photo of the Iraqi president praying. Children's paintings lining the wall have his pictures pasted in.
Every classroom displays a picture of Mr. Hussein on the wall, alternately looking presidential in a business suit, warm with a broad grin beneath his red and white kaffiyeh or rakish smoking a cigar.
The school year just started Tuesday, but already the art class has been busy. The art teacher opened a metal cabinet in the corner and pulled out at random a selection of work from her first-grade class.
One busy painting contained all these elements: a hand swathed in the Iraqi flag holding a dove, Uncle Sam in profile over a Star of David, Margaret Thatcher with a British flag for a hat and her arm reaching out to light a fire, and a hand grenade beneath a black square labeled "God the Generous" with two hands reaching heavenward, shackled.
Another painter focused on just one idea. Dozens of round faces surrounded a can labeled with the most popular brand of dried milk. Echoing a theme sounded by the Iraqi government, the painting carried the slogans, "Why does Bush want to kill our children?" "Mr. Bush, why do you keep milk from us?" and finally, "Yes for our leader Saddam Hussein."
All the children running around the courtyard looked healthy and happy, munching a recess snack of vegetables in flat pita bread. Indeed, no one at the school is one of the starving children the government press repeatedly mentions, said the principal, Najha Naif Hamadi. They're now drinking fresh cow's milk, a radical departure in a country where almost all children normally are given powdered milk.
So just where did the pupils get the inspiration for their art?
"I gave them the idea," said the art teacher, who also keeps haunting paintings drawn by her pupils during the dreadful eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that ended in a cease-fire just two years ago.
The questions from the pupils, who politely raised their hands and stood up to speak, were rather sophisticated for a group that has yet to reach puberty. Evidently, this was not the first time they had heard Middle Eastern politics hashed over.
Question: Why does Israel occupy Palestine?
Answer: Because Israel has no land. You see children are still fighting the Zionist enemy with stones.
Q: Why is there a blockade against Iraq?
A: They thought we were going to submit to them and surrender. But we can manage and we will not surrender to them because we are a strong state, like a field of flowers.
And so on.
"It is not strange to ask questions such as these," said the principal. "They have spent their entire childhood in a time of war.
"We also told them we have not finished with our enemies. We still have enemies all over the world."