Residents of the Iraqi capital celebrated the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on Thursday by doing something noticeably unusual: They hung out on sidewalks, eating ice cream and lifting their faces to the cool fall breeze.
After 21/2 years of war, suicide bombs, power shortages and barricades, Saad Salman took his five children out for a sugar rush. The family sat on benches outside an ice cream shop in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood -- a normal scene in any other part of the Muslim world during the festival of Eid al-Fitr but not in Iraq, where the threat of violence often keeps residents tucked inside their homes unless they absolutely must go out.
The capital felt downright giddy for a change.
Salman, a 42-year-old merchant, said his children begged him to leave the house in the New Baghdad district. "I want them to feel happy," Salman said. "We think the future will be brighter. These are the first steps of stability. We should live normally despite all the difficulties."
The U.S. military announced Thursday that a soldier was killed during combat operations in the western city of Ramadi when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. Two American soldiers were killed in Ramadi on Wednesday when their helicopter was shot down over the city, and U.S. warplanes struck back later that day, dropping two bombs near the site of the helicopter crash, killing 20 people, witnesses said. The military confirmed the strikes on Thursday.
In an Internet posting, al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the helicopter attack. The insurgent group also said it had tried two Moroccan Embassy employees captured last month and sentenced the men to death, according to the Reuters news agency.
"The legislative authority of al Qaeda organization in Iraq has decided to carry out God's law against the infidels and has ruled to kill them," the group said in a statement. No further information was available.
In a news briefing Thursday, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch provided new statistics about insurgent attacks against U.S. forces.
In October, 466 Americans were killed or wounded by roadside bombs and land mines; in January, the deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops, such weapons killed and wounded 261. Car bombs wounded or killed 55 last month, compared with 123 in April, the peak so far this year.
Many Iraqis in the capital expressed a quiet resolve, a deep faith in God that peace would come at the start of Eid, the feast marking the end of Ramadan. Sunni Muslims began the multi-day celebration on Thursday; Shiites generally will begin the feast on Friday.
"We depended on God and went out without fear," said Salma Ahmed, 38. She and her husband, Aqeel Hadi, 40, brought their three children to Karrada to enjoy the holiday. "We expect an explosion every moment, but we decided to go out instead of imprisoning ourselves at home," said Hadi, a taxi driver.
"Iraqis are known for defying danger," Ahmed added as her children, ages 18, 14 and 10, gathered around her like ducklings.
Adil Faisal, 30, a resident of the Kadhimiya neighborhood, strolled the sidewalk with his two wives and his daughters. "We feel the situation is improving and calm these days," Faisal said. "The security forces are doing their best to provide security for the people."
Faisal said in spite of the violence this year, things felt safer than the year before, giving him hope that the country would eventually be secure. "It's hard to restore safety within a year or two only," he said.
In Tikrit, the home town of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, residents crowded into restaurants and amusement parks, children played soccer in the streets and police set up barriers to keep vehicles away from pedestrians.
Ammar Saob, 30, brought his family to an amusement park in the center of the city that reopened Thursday after standing deserted since the U.S. invasion in 2003. "We weren't afraid to go out," Saob said. "We need to be happy and we will be happy."
A roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi police convoy in Tikrit earlier in the day, but no one was injured.
In Mosul, a northern city where violence has increased this year, residents said they could hardly recognize their neighborhoods. Children frolicked in the streets, and families came together, visiting relatives. Iraqi police and army patrols kept a heavy presence in the city, which has been relatively quiet for 10 days, and shops, usually shuttered by the time the moon rises, stayed open until 11 on Wednesday night.
Muhammed Ibrahim, 22, a college student, said the recent constitutional referendum buoyed residents and made them feel safer about going outside during Eid. "Nothing happened so far. We hope this will last and they don't interrupt our happiness," he said.
Saie Mousa, 40, who owns a small grocery, said he was hopeful about the future: "We cannot deny we are happy because we are in Eid, but the bigger happiness is because of these quiet days of security."
In Amman, Jordan, where many wealthy Iraqis have fled in the past two years, some people from Baghdad flocked to the King Abdullah Amusement Park to celebrate the Eid festival.
Omar Ahmed, 41, said he brought his wife and two children to Jordan four days ago so they did not have to worry about their safety. "We miss this in Baghdad," Ahmed said. "Ask my wife -- is she is happy or not?"
His wife laughed and smiled, as their 5-year-old son pulled at his father's hand, eager to get back to the rides. "I don't think she needs to answer," Ahmed said. "This is a good answer."
May Mufti, 41, who left her husband in Baghdad to bring their two sons and two daughters to Amman for Eid, watched as the children rode around a ring of bumper cars, knocking each other in fits of laughter.
"Look at them," she said. "You will never see them this safe and happy in Baghdad. We always lock them inside the house. That's why we came here to have fun."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Naseer Nouri in Amman contributed to this report.