Iraq's Babylon arts festival returns after 19-year hiatus: Why this showcase is a giant step for the war-torn country

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Thousands of people thronged Babylon to witness Iraq's Babylon International Festival, which is being held for the first time after an 18-year hiatus.

The festival, which began last Thursday, is being held for five days and features many activities and events, including music, dancing, folk arts and singing.

"It's a great joy. We haven't seen a festival like this for years," Shaima, 45, visiting the event at the ancient archaeological site with her two daughters, was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse.

What’s the festival all about?

The first edition of the Babylon International Festival held at the heritage site of Babylon was in 1987.

The last time Iraq saw the festival being held was in 2002, the year before the United States-led invasion that eventually toppled veteran dictator Saddam Hussein.

The festival this year drew artists from several countries, including Jordan, Serbia and Russia as well as local talent.

Funding for the festival this year has been mostly private.

For many, the return of the festival is a sign of peace and hope. Iraq has seen lots of bloodshed and turmoil and the celebration has been welcomed by most.

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture said that they hope that this festival will reflect the bright face of Iraq as a multicultural and multi-sectarian country and that the festival will be an appropriate opportunity for rapprochement and spreading love.

Minister of Culture, Hassan Nadhim, said, "The massive flock of citizens to attend the festival's activities is clear evidence of the Iraqi citizen's desire to support culture and arts, which is a message to the whole world."

According to an AFP report, Yasser al-Ardawi, head of the Jordanian troupe, voiced confidence that the festival's return means that "security and stability have returned to Iraq".

The festival's executive director Mohamed al-Rubaie was also quoted as saying, "It's a joyous festival that reflects Iraqi culture."

Iraq’s troubled past

Iraq has had a bloody history — with a war with the United States, to sectarian violence and even attacks by the deadly Islamic State group.

In 2003, the country went to war with US and its coalition forces, primarily the United Kingdom, after the US had claimed that that Iraq, under dictator Saddam Hussein, possessed or was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction. As per estimates, over one lakh Iraqis died in the conflict.

If that wasn’t enough, the country also witnessed massive sectarian violence — notably the conflict between the Shia Muslim majority and the Sunni Muslim minority within the country.

In 2014, the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or Daesh, launched an offensive on Mosul and Tikrit and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the formation of a caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq.

The resulting campaign to drive them out saw thousands of airstrikes, resulting in deaths of civilians and the rich heritage of the country being reduced to rubble.

With inputs from agencies

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Iraq's Babylon arts festival returns after 19-year hiatus: Why this showcase is a giant step for the war-torn country
Iraq's Babylon arts festival returns after 19-year hiatus: Why this showcase is a giant step for the war-torn country
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