MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now, from old art in Iraq to new entertainment there. An Iraqi reality show is stirring controversy with a "Candid Camera"-style spoof, a spoof that capitalizes on dark themes from the war there.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY McEVERS: The conceit of the show is pretty straightforward, at first. Famous Iraqis - actors, singers, sports figures - are invited to be interviewed at Baghdadiya, one of five main channels here in the capital.

On the way to the studio, the car stops at a routine checkpoint. Soldiers accuse the passengers of carrying a homemade bomb.

The soldiers, the driver and the TV host are all in on the joke. It's the famous person who's being punk'd. All of it is caught on hidden camera.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: This in Iraq, not MTV. Here, it gets ugly fast.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #3: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: I'm going to shoot you, one soldier screams. You're a terrorist.

Some guests cry. Some faint. The guest on this episode, a well-known national soccer fan, grabs a big brick and tries to attack soldiers with it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #4: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crying)

McEVERS: They will kill you, the host screams. They will hang you.

The scene drags on for an agonizing 12 minutes, and that's after editing. Eventually, the soldiers kiss the guests and tell them it was all a joke.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #6: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: The show has been roundly criticized by Iraqis. Online comments and newspaper articles say it's too soon to joke about the fact that people still die here every day.

NPR made dozens of calls to the show's host, but they went unanswered.

McEVERS: At a cafe here in Baghdad where guys smoke water pipes, Saif Malik says most Iraqis worry the show will give people high blood pressure or heart attacks.

Mr. SAIF MALIK: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: But still, in this cafe, they're watching every night.

Malik says what makes it so terrifying is that it could be you standing there, accused as a terrorist, begging the army not to beat you or torture you. Even the show's title, "Khali en Buca" - which literally means, let's steal it - is a reference to Camp Bucca, a once-notorious detention center that was built by the U.S. military and now is under Iraqi control.

At the end of the program, once it's revealed that you won't be tortured, the show seems to undercut its own critique of the security forces. Guests who've been spoofed end up lavishing praise on the soldiers.

Here's the soccer fan again, this time in the TV studio.

Unidentified Male #7: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: I love Iraq, he says. I'm a son of Iraq. Our brothers in the army are great.

Karim Wasfi heads the national symphony and is a cultural critic. He says he hates "Khali en Buca." But it is provocative, whether by accident or by design.

Mr. KARIM WASFI (Conductor, Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra): It's either very stupid, or it was very cleverly done - as if there are actually two messages to convey. One of them is to demonize the army, or the concept of security. And the other one is to use that to actually support operations, support the army, etc., etc. So there's almost a competition of - or there's this question - you wonder whether you should be actually supporting or not.

McEVERS: Despite the show's pro-army propaganda, Iraqi officials aren't impressed. Just today, the government office that controls media announced they'll close Baghdadiya if the network keeps running "Khali en Buca." This afternoon, a soap opera was on in its place.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #8 (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

McEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Khali en Buca")

Unidentified Male #8 (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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