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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 06:29 GMT
Iraqi orchestra plays US concert
Conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat with the Iraqi orchestra
The orchestra struggled to survive under Saddam Hussein
Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra has performed its first foreign concert for 11 years in the US capital, Washington.

The musicians were flown to the US by the State Department, to promote wider efforts being taken to rebuild Iraq.

US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were among the star-studded audience.

The concert marks the orchestra's revival, after it suffered under Saddam Hussein, UN sanctions and bombing during the US-led war against Iraq.

The concert was held in Washington's prestigious Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

The BBC's Jon Leyne, in Washington, described the event as a touch of the orient to lighten the drabness of winter Washington.

The musicians shared the stage with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra. Colin Powell described it as the "sweet, sweet sound of freedom".

To the audience at the Kennedy Centre it was just a delightful musical adventure, our correspondent adds.

'Benefits of freedom'

The orchestra's director, Hisham Sharaf, said he hoped the concert would help improve the image of Iraqis in the wider world.

"We don't only have camels and deserts, we have educated people," he said.

"This is the first step to tell the American people that Iraqis are friendly people that like peace."

The performance was also an opportunity for the State Department to show improvements in the lives of Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein earlier this year.

"This is another instance of the Iraqi people realising the benefits of freedom," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Under siege

The 63-member orchestra was founded in 1959 and is believed to be one of the oldest in the Arab world.

We were not even able to buy musical instruments
Munther Jamilhafidh, orchestra co-founder
It struggled to survive under Saddam Hussein and lost several musicians who fled the regime.

The orchestra also suffered after the UN imposed sanctions against Iraq, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

"We were under siege for 12 years and we did not see any symphony orchestras," said Munther Jamilhafidh, one of the orchestra's co-founders.

"We were not even able to buy musical instruments or any other books related to music."

The orchestra continued to practise as Baghdad was blitzed by missiles and bombs during the US invasion, but it was forced to relocate after its home, al-Rashid theatre, was ransacked and burned by looters after the end of the war.

The Washington concert included works by Beethoven and Bizet, as well as Iraqi compositions.

The BBC's Jon Leyne
"The members of the orchestra can hardly believe their luck"

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