Iraq to revive Babylonian festival

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BABYLON - Iraq has announced that it is to revive an international cultural festival in the ruins of ancient Babylon, as a symbol of defiance against the United States and its Gulf war allies, whose aircraft are policing Iraq's northern and southern skies.

'The Babylon festival will underline that the torch of life will not be extinguished no matter how hard the enemies like Zionists and (their) agents try to stop the march,' said Hamed Youssef Hammadi, the Iraqi Minister of Culture and Information, in his first announcement of the festival. 'This festival . . . is a defiance . . . of the forces of evil and conspiracy against our country,' he said.

In Babylon today there is more of Saddam Hussein than of Nebuchadnezzar, the king who restored the city to glory more than 2,500 years ago, captured Jerusalem and forced the Jews into exile. The name of the Iraqi leader, like that of Nebuchadnezzar before him, has been stamped into millions of bricks used in the massive reconstruction of the city 100km (60 miles) south of Baghdad.

President Saddam has spent millions of dollars in a bid to revive the greatness that was once Babylon. On top of huge artificial mounds, with terraced trees and flowers, imitating Babylon's Hanging Gardens, he has had built palaces and recreation centres, which overshadow the remains of the monuments to Nebuchadnezzar's greatness.

Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon from 605BC to 562BC, rebuilt the city after it was sacked in 689BC by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, to punish rebellious Babylonians. Now, artificial lakes, fed by water from the Euphrates river swarm with different kinds of fish. Modern restaurants, cafes and parks dot the ancient town.

President Saddam decided to revive the festival, which was last held in 1989, as part of his campaign to rally Iraqis against a two-year-old United Nations trade blockade and 'no-fly zones' imposed by the US and its Gulf war allies in the north and south of the country.

'From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein, Babylon rises again,' say the placards decorating the entrances to the ancient city. In song and verse, President Saddam is compared to Nebuchadnezzar, who united what is present day Iraq and created an empire that included Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and parts of Iran.

It was Nebuchadnezzar who captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Jewish Temple and took thousands of Jewish armed men and thousands of workers 'in iron' as well as the King of Judah to captivity in Babylon.

Before UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq in response to its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, 150,000 people, mostly foreigners visited Babylon annually, said Rabih Mahmoud al-Qaysi, head of the city's revival project. 'Now, apart from picnickers from (the nearby city of) Hilla, Babylon is all alone to itself again,' he said.