Baghdad Residents Gather in the Open for Holiday

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

BAGHDAD, Sept. 30 -- Ever since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Um Abdullah has kept her four children inside on holidays, terrified by the bombings and kidnappings that were tearing the country apart. But on Tuesday, she set out to reclaim her former life.

"We were like in a prison at home," she said, sitting on the grass in a western Baghdad park where revelers celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr were picnicking, whirling around a merry-go-round and dancing to the beat of a drum. "But now the situation is getting better -- though it's still not good."

Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically, with attacks down 83 percent nationwide during the first three weeks of the holy month of Ramadan, compared with the same period in 2007, according to U.S. military figures.

But Baghdad residents know the bloodshed isn't over. On Sunday, five bombs blew up in the city, killing 32 people. Um Abdullah, who would not give her full name, said she was on a street where one of the car bombs exploded, but escaped injury.

"There is a kind of inner conflict," the teacher explained, describing her mix of hope and fear about venturing out. Ultimately, she decided to take the risk and bring her children, ages 5 to 13, to the park for the holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.

"We should go outside," she declared, "and live."

The Zawra park was packed with hundreds of people like Um Abdullah, most enjoying the holiday in an open-air venue for the first time in years. Children sported pointy birthday-party-type hats and munched cotton candy. Teenage boys in T-shirts and jeans rollerbladed past women in their finest glittering head scarves.

In the park, you could almost forget the country's violence -- if it weren't for the full-body pat-down at the entrance, the Iraqi soldiers in bulletproof vests strolling near the Ferris wheel, the long coil of concertina wire around the perimeter.

The noisy park was just one sign of residents' new, wary hope. Another was at the National Theater, which had triumphantly announced that it would hold its first nighttime performance since the invasion.

But just two hours before the 5 p.m. curtain, a white Mitsubishi sedan packed with explosives blew up across the street from the theater, killing three people and blasting a hole in the pavement. Police barricaded the street, and it appeared the much-heralded cultural event was off.

And then a small miracle occurred. Theater officials asked the officers to reopen the street, and by curtain time, dozens of theatergoers had marched into the building, in defiance of the attackers.

"We cannot let the terrorists control us," said Salam Mijbil, a theater official. "This bombing is the wind of hate. We will resist this wind and not buckle."

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