Baghdad Better but Audiences Still Avoid Theaters

Abdul Sattar al-Basri, a popular actor at the Iraqi National Theatre, has stayed in Baghdad throughout the U.S.-led invasion. But on a recent walk along the crumbling floors and staircases that surround the theater where he performs, he was in no mood to celebrate his perseverance.

"We hear for weeks and months that things are better in Baghdad," the cherub-faced 50-year-old told ABC News. "I don't see it here at the theater."

Baghdad is in the middle of a lull in the deadly violence not seen in more than a year. Car bombings and other attacks are at their lowest levels since January 2006 and the number of civilian casualties has plummeted in recent months, according to U.S. military figures.

While the fragile respite from bloodshed is rejuvenating once dormant businesses and commerce around the city, important cultural institutions — from museums and theaters to concert halls — are still struggling to regain their footing, interviews with a string of cultural and political leaders reveal.

The National Museum of Antiquities, severely burned and looted after the 2003 invasion, remains closed and in desperate need of repair. The National Symphony and National Theater operate on reduced schedules, performing at best once a week. The Baghdad International Film Festival, heavily promoted to kick off this month, was canceled because of security concerns.

The same forces fracturing Iraq are slowing the artistic community's progress: scattered violence, government bureaucracy and a lack of basic services, nongovernmental organizations and other outside monitoring groups say.

Further compounding the problem is the failed effort to lure back the thousands of artists, performers and managers who fled the sectarian bloodletting that erupted here in the years after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. Many have yet to return and scores more remain in hiding, fearing they could still be targeted by religious extremists who labeled the artistic and literary class heretical because of its often liberal interpretation of Islam.

While it may not be attracting the artists, the reduced violence in Baghdad over recent months (paired with Syria forcibly sending many refugees home) has led to the return of tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis.

Shops and restaurants along once popular thoroughfares are reopening and weekend markets — a staple of lively commerce for hundreds of years — are again packed with traffic. The government, emboldened by the lull in violence, recently reopened Abu Nawas Street, a famous riverside promenade that has been largely barricaded from the public since the U.S.-led invasion.

But this renewed vitality in many once-deadly corners of the city is not trickling into the cultural institutions. Many outlets are still in desperate need of renovations while others are still in war mode. Iraq's National Symphony has tried to keep its doors open throughout the war, but it's had to be creative.

A year ago, when violent sectarian clashes were at their peak, performances were forced out of their sprawling hall on Maghreb Street in northern Baghdad. Musicians were threatened and audiences, naturally, dwindled. The symphony now shares space at the National Theater but only offers sporadic performances. Because schedules sometimes clash, it's been forced to perform at the Hunting Club, a west Baghdad social club that was popular with Saddam's Baath Party members.

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