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.

"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.

"We are given the task of preserving the fragments of Iraq's ancient heritage," Eskander said, pointing with modest pride to freshly painted walls and renovated floors at the archive building. An ethnic Kurd who was born in Baghdad, Eskander earned a doctorate in Britain. He was among a small group of Iraqi expatriates who streamed into Baghdad to help rebuild after the U.S.-led invasion.

"It's been a difficult and long process but an important one for Iraq," he said.

The American military, the Iraqi government and aid organizations are making efforts to renovate Baghdad's cultural arteries. The Baghdad Museum Project, a nonprofit organization working to establish a comprehensive online catalog of all cultural artifacts in the National Museum's collection, is spearheading fundraising efforts to help many locations.

Federal programs aimed at funding museum and theater renovations are slowly taking hold after months of legislative limbo. Artists who fled the country during Saddam's reign have pledged to return as better security takes hold. And to add beauty to blighted areas, the city hired two dozen Iraqi artists to paint colorful murals on blast walls, those 12-foot-high concrete slabs that snake along the city's streets and roads.

Still, some here are frustrated by the slow pace of progress.

"Iraqi politicians come from a culture of doing nothing so they move very slowly in helping," said Eskander. "They [are] not [accustomed] to investing in our cultural future so things will move slowly for a long time."