Baghdad Better but Audiences Still Avoid Theaters

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.

"By moving around, we stay anonymous," said a violinist with the symphony, who declined to identify himself for fear of being targeted by extremists. "By doing this we still keep the spirit of culture alive, but we also stay alive, too."

A Safer City?

Although violence is statistically down, Baghdad remains a brutal place and it's a wonder any cultural institution is able to open at all. In the last week, car bombs in several busy areas have claimed more than two dozen lives, according to police reports.

But even hardened critics of the American-led occupation admit to a relative calm on Baghdad streets not seen in months. The U.S. military says the weekly number of attacks has fallen to the lowest level since just before the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, an event commonly used as a benchmark for the country's worst spasm of violence since the American invasion began.

Casualties suffered by Iraqi security forces are down 40 percent since the beginning of the troop reinforcement plan — known commonly as the surge. Civilian fatalities in Baghdad are down 75 percent in recent months, the U.S. military says. Some areas of Baghdad are seeing the lowest levels of overall attacks since the spring and summer of 2005, according to Iraqi and U.S. military data.

Several factors have contributed to the lull in violence, analysts and military officials here say, including a huge increase in the number of Sunni Arab rebels turning their guns on jihadists instead of American troops. A six-month halt to military action by the militia of top Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and the increased number of American troops on the streets have also helped reduce the mayhem.

The National Library and Archives is one of the few institutions taking advantage of the lull. Looters pillaged and heavily burned the library after the invasion, with thousands of antiquities damaged or stolen during a three-day rampage. Hundreds of rare, centuries-old Islamic documents and texts were stolen and fire, smoke and water damaged much of what remained. Though it never officially closed, the archive was essentially off-limits to visitors during a lengthy renovation period.

Today the library and archive is fully open again and its staff has more than doubled, according to Saad Eskander, the archive's director. With the help of NGOs from Europe and Asia, the library and archive is now equipped with the kinds of technology out of reach under Saddam.

High-speed Internet, state-of-the-art scanning and copy machines and a microfilm lab that allows staff to do critical preservation work on site, instead of sending documents to Europe for repair, as was the case before the war.

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