By Missy Ryan and Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Romance is in the air in Baghdad as war-weary Iraqis celebrate Valentine’s Day after a sharp drop in violence, allowing lovers to cautiously hold hands in parks and to buy gifts for their sweethearts.
Public courtship and more daring clothing for women are increasing after years of growing intolerance, perhaps signalling the Islamic dogma and conservatism that accompanied Iraq’s slide into sectarian slaughter may be losing their grip.
"You cannot imagine how happy I am today," said Usama Abdul-Wahab Khatab, a recent university graduate nestled beside his girlfriend at a riverside Baghdad park.
A year earlier, the park shook to the sounds of artillery fire that rained on the U.S. diplomatic and military Green Zone complex across the river, launched by religious militias whose reign also kept unmarried men and women apart.
Although Iraq is predominantly Muslim, celebration of an originally Western day for lovers became popular after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
But many Iraqis also fled the violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion.
When Khatab went to Syria several years ago, he left behind not just his studies and friends, but Nada Issam, the soft-spoken woman who now sits beside him with manicured nails and a delicate sequined headscarf.
Khatab returned a year ago and the couple has been venturing out to places where they can spend time alone -- in green areas by the Tigris or along the shores of a nearby a lake.
Even there they must fend off or bribe police who hassle them for being too close or for holding hands.
Like other Iraqis, they are caught between a desire for greater freedom and romantic expression, and a conservative Islamic culture brought to the fore in six years of war.
When religious militias and insurgents controlled swathes of Baghdad, men found with women before marriage were whipped, and the woman taken to her parents, Abbas Jawad said.
"My son is spending Valentine’s Day with his girlfriend. He’s 16. I would never have allowed that before," he said.
Technology out of reach or not yet in existence under Saddam has enabled many Iraqis to discreetly widen their social circles or flirt. Bluetooth radio signals on most modern phones allow people to subtly send messages to strangers sitting nearby.
Even secular Iraqis once dressed conservatively to avoid militant ire, but clothes are now tighter and shorter, shrinking in line with militia power following government crackdowns. Global trends are beamed into Iraq by satellite television.
Husam al-Din Ali picked a miniskirt -- black satin with bright gold studs and a long metallic chain -- off a rack at one of the women’s clothing shops he owns in Baghdad and brandished it as proof Iraqi women can now dress more suggestively.
In Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood this Valentine’s Day, shop windows were crowded with giant red teddy bears and stuffed hearts reading "Forever in Love".
Yet cultural changes occur slowly and unevenly in Iraq, where people fear a resurgence in violence and attitudes toward romance, marriage and sex vary widely.
In one perfume store, a middle-aged man watched as the shopkeeper pasted a gold-trimmed bow on a gift he bought for his wife. Things aren’t good enough for him to take her out in the evening. "We’ll have dinner at home," he sighed.
Changes bring their own problems for some Iraqi men, too.
"The girls have changed the way they dress so much. It’s so good now it hurts," said Mohened Tha‘far who, with no date lined up for Valentines Day, sat gazing at girls walking by.
Maythem Alaa and Ahmed Salman, dressed in tight jeans and shirts and with perfectly coiffed hair, were also frustrated.
"Love is tiring," said Alaa.
"We’ve been walking round and round trying to catch those two’s attention for ages now, but no luck," said Salman, pointing to a pair of fashionably dressed girls in the distance. (Additional reporting and writing by Mohammed Abbas)