The Iraqi musicians appeared to relish the chance of pulling a
few strings in the US capital late on Tuesday, but political analysts say such symbolism needs to be followed up by accelerating Iraq's American-led reconstruction. 

"Tonight we also welcome the re-entry of Iraqi culture onto the world stage," US Secretary of State Colin Powell told hundreds of Washington grandees who had been allocated tickets to the sought-after gala. 

He described the evening's concert which featured several original Iraqi compositions as "a symbol of normal life returning to the people of Iraq." 

Washington VIPs

President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Iraq's ambassador to the US Rend Rahim, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers and 60 foreign ambassadors listened as the musicians warmed up. 

"It is a symbolic gesture really, a cultural exchange if you like"

Falih Abd al-Jabar, a senior Iraqi fellow at the United States Institute for Peace

The Iraqi orchestra was whisked into Washington by the State Department, the musicians are being paid 120 dollars a month by the US Coalition Governing Authority. 

It was their premier US concert and the first foreign concert given by the hard-pressed orchestra in 11 years. 

The orchestra struggled to retain its unity after UN sanctions were placed on the former regime of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. 

Starving for funds

The orchestra is starved of funds after its home -  Baghdad's al-Rashid theatre was burned by looters when US forces entered Baghdad -  and domestic concerts occur behind tight security and razor wire. 

Years of conflict and sanctions
hit the orchestra hard

Hisham Sharaf, the orchestra's director, was shot in Baghdad a few months ago when it was announced the orchestra was coming to the United States.

Critics say the performance alongside the US National Symphony Orchestra at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts puts a good spin on US rebuilding efforts, but that symbolism alone will not win Iraqi hearts and minds. 

"It is a symbolic gesture really, a cultural exchange if you like," Falih Abd al-Jabar, a senior Iraqi fellow at the United States Institute for Peace, told AFP. 

Bigger concerns

Abd al-Jabar said Americans were likely to applaud the orchestra's performance, but that many Iraqis were more concerned about water and electricity supplies. 

"There are grand promises, but what materialised on the ground is very little," said Abd al-Jabar of other US rebuilding efforts.

"The hope is that this will be accelerated somehow or else
delays would be detrimental," he said. And it will remain to be seen whether the concert is self-reinforcing for a US administration that has been accused by critics of having a deaf-ear on Iraq matters.