WASHINGTON -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday his country plans to send up to 10,000 Iraqi students per year to colleges in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia over the next five years as a part of a new scholarship program.
Al-Maliki said the country'seducation system has suffered after years of war and dictatorship.
"Today with the stability and the security back in Iraq, we are moving forward," al-Maliki said through a translator.
Al-Maliki announced the plans at the Academy for Educational Development in Washington. The nonprofit organization will help advise Iraq as it places students.
Zuhair Humadi, an adviser to al-Maliki who is overseeing the program, said the education initiative is a turning point for Iraq.
"Education is the key to development and progress," Humadi said.
The Iraqi government is funding the scholarship program, which covers tuition, fees and room and board. The awards will allow students to earn bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees. They can pick their area of study, but are encouraged to go into engineering, education and business, among other fields. The students are then expected to return to Iraq after graduating.
Twenty-two American universities are participating in the initiative, including Vanderbilt University, Texas A&M University and the Ohio's state university system.
Iraq is also working with 21 universities in Britain, including the University of Cambridge, Newcastle University, University of Leeds, and the University of Nottingham.
Iraqi leaders hope to start about 500 students in U.S. and U.K. schools by mid-fall, Humadi said. Canada and Australia will take students next year.
Along with the scholarship program, the country also plans to reform its elementary, secondary and higher education system with new curriculum and teaching methods. The changes are expected to begin next year.
Humadi said the Iraqis from all backgrounds support education. "Even the poor people will sacrifice to send their children to school and keep after them," he said.
"There is a tradition of learning and knowledge," Humadi said. "People are excited. Iraq has been isolated for the past 30, 40 years."
About $54 million has been set aside to cover the first year of the program, Humadi said. He estimated the cost for each student to be about $50,000 annually.
Humadi said the Iraqi parliament backs the program. "And that comes from all political parties — from A-Z," he added.
Al-Maliki said Iraqi leaders are changing the political system to be one of "freedom, human rights, equality for all. And this is the recipe for the progress of science and education."