BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Gunmen threaten to kill their relatives, roadside bombs make journeys to school hazardous and religious hardliners persecute them -- but the children of Iraq's Music and Ballet School have an antidote to war: music.
"When I play my oud, I defy violence in society," said Haneen Imad, 17, referring to her traditional Arabic lute, as she played an old folk song on its strings. "When I hear the sound of a helicopter droning over my head, I play louder."
Baghdad's only musical academy for school-aged students has been in decline since the early 1990s, when United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait wrecked the economy and left many families destitute. But things got a lot worse after U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
Daily violence in Baghdad has endangered many a child's journey to the classroom, but pupils and teachers at this school in an upmarket Baghdad suburb fear the added threat of being attacked by religious militants for their love of music.
The emergence of a new breed of militants, who target people practicing arts they consider "un-Islamic," has led several worried parents to take their children out of the school.
The 200 students who attended in 2006 have dwindled to just 140, headmistress Najiha Hamadi said.
"After 2003, religious movements started to gain influence on Iraqi life. This has had a negative impact on us," Hamadi told Reuters. "People fear for the safety of their children."
The rise of Islamism was an unintended consequence of the U.S.-led war to remove Saddam, whose secular Baath party had ruthlessly suppressed religious movements.
While most Islamists reject the idea of enforcing their views at gunpoint, attacks by a militant minority have surged. Shi'ite militants in Basra have lobbed grenades at music shops. Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has planted bombs in women's beauty salons and cut off people's fingers for smoking.
The school has been targeted twice -- in 2003, when a mob looted it and in 2004, when arsonists burned down half of it. Hamadi said it was never clear who was behind either attack.
"The whole school was unusable for a while after (it was burned), then we had to repair it," she said.
Since then, fear has persuaded many to move their children to conventional schools -- especially girls as they reach adolescence, when their figure-hugging ballet costumes might start to raise eyebrows in more pious circles.
In a huge hall hung with mirrors, ballet teacher Zina Akram played the piano while six-year-olds practiced their ballet steps, the girls in pink leotards, the boys wearing black shorts and white T-shirts.
For Iraq's more zealous Islamists, music and dancing are not things that should be taught in schools. Citing the Koran, they say it is "haram" -- forbidden. Moderate Muslims dispute this.
"There are texts saying singing is haram ... Music diverts people from remembering or praising God, from prayers," said Fakhri al-Qaisi, an Islamic scholar and Sunni fundamentalist.
Ballet, with its emphasis on celebrating the beauty of the human form in its evocative moves, is especially frowned upon. Most Islamists think women should be covered from head to toe in public.
"Ballet exposes women's physical beauty," Qaisi said. "It is a western culture, foreign to Muslims. Showing semi-naked women in public is haram: Islamic law prohibits such things."
While Qaisi does not condone attacks on those he regards as defying Islamic law, not all Islamists are as tolerant.
Artistic director Ahmed Salim said many students could not practice their instruments at home, fearing attack by gunmen in their neighborhoods. "We find this a lot with loud instruments. It is dangerous if neighbors hear you're a musician," he said.
Farand Nashaat, 14, hides his trumpet in a rucksack on the way to school so as not to draw attention to his love of music.
The Music and Ballet school was founded in 1968. It is state-funded, has pupils from the Sunni and Shi'ite sects and teachers say the only criterion for entry is musical talent. Students also take ordinary academic subjects.
It used to put on performances of ballet and classical music, but teachers say poor security has ended that.
Foreign teachers, mostly Russian, once flocked to the school to work but they have all now fled. Prospects for graduates are uncertain in a climate of instability and high unemployment.
Most of the National Symphony Orchestra -- which gave a rare public performance in Baghdad earlier this month -- started out here.
Some members of the orchestra have been kidnapped or killed in sectarian violence, others received death threats and 29 joined the exodus of more than 2 million people who fled Iraq. Its music library and instrument store were also looted in 2003.
Zuhel Sultan, a 16-year-old pianist, joined the music school when she was 10. Gunmen killed her father four years ago and her mother died of a stroke shortly after, but she says she's lucky.
"I'm lucky because I have music. With music, I can overcome my difficulties -- the dangers of roads, explosions, fearing for relatives," she said with a broad smile.
Despite hardships, the school provides all instruments, ballet costumes and musical scores -- and offers a cherished escape from daily life for pupils like Husam al-Deen, a 17-year-old cellist.
"My most joyful time is at school," he said. "It's a beautiful feeling -- we forget the problems on the street, the war, the Americans. We forget everything until we go home."
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary)
Writing by Tim Cocks and Aseel Kami