With an agenda of hope, Iraqi media mogul funds the arts

Publisher Fakhri Karim is using his influence and wealth to fuel a cultural revival in Iraq.

A seasoned newspaperman and publisher with shrewd political instincts and friends in high places, Fakhri Karim's rise to the top of Iraqi media mirrors in many ways the path of Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane.

Mr. Karim, owner of the Baghdad-based Al-Mada newspaper, considered the country's most professional, came from the most humble beginnings as a Shiite Kurd. He was a young idealist, later an exile. But today, he holds court with the country's most powerful, such as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region.

But where Kane was driven by ego, Karim says he is leveraging his power and wealth for the good of Iraqis.

Over the past year, he has been using his own money, plus the backing of Messrs. Talabani and Barzani, to change the mood of Iraqis through cultural and educational events to demonstrate that there is still hope despite the daily bloodshed.

He says that he wants to prove to the current political elite that the polarization of Iraqis – and their embrace of hard-line Islamic movements – is only a temporary self-protection phenomenon following the immense void left in the wake Saddam Hussein's regime.

At the heart of it all, he says, most Iraqis desire a moderate, secular state with a vibrant civil society.

"The goal is to revive cultural life in the country and to bolster the role of the educated class in deciding Iraq's fate," he said in an interview. His efforts are "cultural but it can affect the general political mood in the country… It's not going to be an intifada [uprising] but more like chipping away at stone and not giving up."

Since June 2006, Al-Mada has organized few "cultural matinees" in Baghdad because of the city's nightly curfew. But paper has been distributing free books printed by Karim's Damascus-based publishing house and has sponsored writing and theater competitions awarding prize money to young talent.

And last month, Karim gathered more than 500 Iraqi artists, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, promising young minds, and even a few moderate clerics from all over the country, as well as the diaspora, in the relative tranquility of the Kurdish capital of Arbil for the Mada Cultural Week. The event was billed as a tribute to the late poet Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri, a figure beloved by most Iraqis who see him as a staunch nationalist and a promoter of secular and modernist values.

Karim's guests milled around the plush lobby of the hotel where the event was held or strolled through its manicured garden. During the day they attended lectures and workshops on a variety of serious topics such as the forms and roots of extremism, reviving Iraqi theater in an era of increasing social taboos, and the pros and cons of the country's proposed oil law, currently being reviewed by parliament.

Like a Socratic gadfly, an elegantly dressed Karim nipped in and out of the day sessions, at times quietly watching from the corner, at others tactfully nudging the debate in a certain direction, and, in some instances, provoking participants to be bolder with their arguments.

Faleh Jabar, director of the Beirut-based Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies described Karim's project this way: "It's a middle-class movement that tries to transcend sectarian fractures. It has potential, and the message is creeping. It has to be done; the whole region will regress if we lose." With Karim's help, Jabar plans to open branches for his think tank in all of Iraq's provinces staffed by young researchers trained by him and his colleagues.

In the 1960s and 70s, Karim was one of the leaders of the Iraqi Communist Party. He fled the country in 1978 to neighboring Syria, where he rose to prominence by allying himself with the Damascus-supported anti-Hussein resistance in the Kurdish north and forging strong ties with Palestinian guerillas in Lebanon. He has survived several assassination attempts including one in Beirut in 1982 when he was shot in the face.

In Syria he abandoned communism and founded his printing house, which is now one of the Arab world's largest.

He returned to Iraq after Mr. Hussein's ouster in 2003 to start the newspaper, which catapulted to fame in January 2004 when it printed the names of some 200 world figures and institutions that were bribed by Hussein through vouchers to buy oil as part of the UN Oil for Food Program. Karim said that he holds the archives of the former secret service's relations with the outside world and that he would not hesitate to publish more documents if it was in the "interest of Iraq."

He says he believes Iraq's salvation will only come when the current political players transcend their differences and narrow interests and work toward a meaningful national reconciliation and the US government stops imposing its own vision of what Iraq should be and seeks more solutions from within.

"The political forces must wake up and realize that Iraq can only be ruled through consensus; Americans are stuck in the mud, they must stop coming up with solutions for Iraq according to their wishes and vision over there in Washington," he said.

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