Iraqi orchestra pushes unity in rare performance

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The national symphony orchestra hoped music would bring Iraqis into harmony in a concert on Wednesday which highlighted sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of people, including some of its members.

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Before directing the rare public performance, conductor Karim Wasfi said his cellists and violinists could bring peace of mind to Iraqis, who face daily bombings and shootings.

“It’s the best way to unite Iraqis,” he said in the auditorium where Iraq’s parliament meets in the heavily fortified government and diplomatic Green Zone compound.

“We want to help our politicians make peace.”

It is hard enough for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) to meet for practice sessions, let alone help unite Iraqis who face suicide bombings, shootings and kidnappings.

Some members have been kidnapped or killed in sectarian bloodshed, others have received death threats and 29 have joined the exodus of more than 2 million people who have fled Iraq.

It saw its music library and instrument store looted after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, and one of its main concert venues was destroyed by U.S. missiles.

The orchestra could not have drawn a big audience no matter how hypnotizing the concerto.

Only Iraqis with identification papers approved by the U.S. military can enter the Green Zone, a sprawling complex with long blast walls that has been hit by deadly mortar attacks.

The concert, attended by about 100 people, featured the first foreign conductor since before the U.S. invasion, and Oliver Gilmour said it had been a rewarding but unnerving experience.

“I was transported in a Humvee (armored vehicle) and sat there with a soldier manning a machinegun above me,” said Gilmour.

The concert marked the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, a concept that seems out of touch with reality in Iraq, despite the optimism of Iraqi government officials and their American allies.

Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari opened the concert by saying the country was united and that “terrorists” would never divide Iraqis or taint their rich cultural history.

Gilmour said politics and music should not mix. “It is always irritating when politicians take up our time during concerts discussing politics,” he said.

After the conductors exchanged wands to end the performance, one of the youngest members of the orchestra said she just liked to get lost in her music and forget about Iraq’s turmoil.

“I always feel happy when I play music,” said Rania Nashaat, 16. “But I feel really happy that I could perform here because it is considered to be a hotspot.”

Editing by Janet Lawrence