BAGHDAD (Reuters) - On New Year’s Eve Ridaa al-Azzawi squeezed into his pointy snakeskin boots, his tight black sweater and his snazzy corduroy flared jeans, hustled down to a Baghdad hotel ballroom and partied for peace.
2008 arrived in a less-violent Baghdad, and residents said it was the first real party they had seen in years.
At the stroke of midnight, exuberant locals fired into the air with automatic rifles, sending red tracer fire streaking over the city, as fireworks lit up the sky.
While the city is still far from peaceful and many of the festive gatherings had a tentative feel, many said it was a happier occasion than they could have dared to hope just a few months ago.
“The security has changed and it took us by surprise. We’re very happy. Especially us young people,” said al-Azzawi, a 22-year-old student taking a break from dancing to a traditional Iraqi band in the ballroom of the Palestine Hotel.
“I haven’t seen a happy place like this in so long. I wanted to see if I could maybe meet a few girls!” he said. “I only hope the Iraqi people can enjoy more happy times like this.”
Salah al-Lami, 27, the singer who performed at the Palestine ballroom and then for another New Year’s Eve crowd at the Sheraton Hotel across the street, said it was the first time he had sung before a live audience in four years.
“This will be the year that we take our freedom!” he told Reuters after singing through a boisterous set in front of a packed dancefloor.
“When I went up on the stage and started singing I felt like I was performing for my family.”
Belly dancers also took the stage, and revelers showered a female singer with dinar notes, the Iraqi audience’s ultimate sign of approval.
Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically in the past few months. U.S. forces say attacks are down 60 percent since June.
Although 2007 was the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops, December was the least deadly month for the U.S.-led coalition since the war began. Just 22 U.S. and allied soldiers were killed in December, compared with 131 in May.
Still, violence has not ceased. A suicide car bomb in a town north of Baghdad killed 11 people including five children on New Year’s Eve morning. Two suicide bombs killed at least 33 people on Christmas Day.
But as the New Year’s parties went on, the violence seemed to be forgotten.
In Karrada, the downtown Baghdad shopping neighborhood, young people came out with fireworks to celebrate the New Year, laughing and spraying each other with aerosol foam.
Economics student Afir Ali, 21, turned up at the Palestine ballroom in a faux-suede blazer and jeans.
“We thank god. This is a beautiful feeling. We wish we could do this every day,” he said.
“We want to enjoy life. We’ve had enough of violence.”
Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla, Editing by Matthew Jones