Why Iraqi Security Forces Are Promoting the Arts

How Cultural Initiatives Serve Key Defense Goals

A man shops for books on Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, Iraq, August 2017.  Thaier Al-Sudani / REUTERS

Just as the Iraqi armed forces geared up for their advance into Western Mosul in February 2017, the Ministry of Defense newspaper Khaimat al-Iraq announced the revival of Iraq’s Army Theater, an institution that once held musical and theatrical productions on its stage dating back to Saddam Hussein’s days. The paper acknowledged that the joint Ministry of Defense-Ministry of Culture undertaking was ambitious, but argued that it was nonetheless vital in order to “document the victories of our army to raise the morale of our heroic fighters.”  

In the midst of such bloodletting, the launch of such a project may seem surprising at best and a waste of resources at worst. A survey of the Ministry of Defense’s publications, however, reveals that arts and culture initiatives are actually a crucial part of its strategy to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and rebuild the country. Compared with issues like the next Sunni insurgency or the future of Iraq’s Shiite militias, the role of arts and culture in restoring security has flown under the radar. But from an Iraqi perspective, it is a security issue in its own right.

Iraqi Ministry of Defense media, which includes the newspaper Khaimat al-Iraq and the TV program Himaat al-Iraq, puts a notable emphasis on content related to arts and culture. Between July and August 2017 alone, around 90 such items appeared in the former outlet. These include pro-military poems, articles about campaigns to revive cities through art, announcements of cultural events in celebration of victories over ISIS—and even a new TV show dramatizing Iraqi citizens’ efforts to recover the town of Dhuluiya from ISIS with the help of the security forces. These events sometimes involve direct participation by members of the armed forces and occasionally Ministry of Defense sponsorship: in July, the ministry hosted a victory festival on the stage of the National Theater that featured musical and theatrical performances honoring the armed forces and those killed in action. The ministry’s promotion of

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