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Muslims Mark Beginning of Eid al-Fitr Festival

Most of the Middle East on Friday marked the start of the feast marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with crisis, violence, fear and isolation all casting a pall over one of the happiest dates on the Islamic calendar.

In Baghdad, Beirut and Gaza, the beginning three-day Eid al-Fitr festival was somber and muted.

"I can't feel the spirit on this Eid," said Um Mohammed, a 55-year-old widow and mother of four in Azamiyah, a northern Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. "My elder son was killed last year by gunmen and majority of my relatives either killed, displaced or live in remote areas."

In the Iraqi capital, public festivities were rare as Sunni Arabs marked Eid. Bomb attacks, shootings and sectarian killings have forced many Iraqis to temper all celebrations — not just Eid.

Most of Iraq's Shiites, along with those in Iran, were to celebrate Eid on Saturday.

In Lebanon, Sunni Muslims and Shiites who follow Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah started marking Eid on Friday. Others who follow Sheik Abdul Amir Qabalan, deputy president of the Higher Shiite Muslim Council, the highest religious authority for the country's 1.2 million Shiites, are expected to begin marking the feast Saturday.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's office said he will not be receiving well- wishers for the Eid due to the tense situation in the country.

For Gazans, the first Eid under Hamas control was marked by international isolation, empty shelves and bitter internal rivalries. Even Friday prayers were divided along factional lines, with separate locations for supporters of Gaza's Hamas rulers and their rivals from Fatah.

Some predominantly Sunni countries delayed the start of Eid until Saturday. The start and end of Ramadan, lasting about 30 days, is determined by the sighting of the new moon.

In the Middle East, Eid began Friday for Iraq's Sunnis, in Jordan and Libya, the Palestinian territories, Yemen, the Gulf states, Sudan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

It was set to begin Saturday in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Syria.

In Jordan, thousands of people left the capital Amman to the country's southern resort of Aqaba on the Red Sea, leaving the capital almost deserted. A soon as Jordan TV announced the end of Ramadan late Thursday, people began their celebration with fireworks until the late hours of the evening. Children around the country were wearing new clothes, bought specially for Eid.

It was completely different just across the border in Baghdad.

In the Iraqi capital's Azamiyah neighborhood, where the country's most revered Sunni shrine is located, families and children found themselves with no place to go as two social clubs and a park were occupied by Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops.

Instead, a modest playground was set up in an abandoned piece of land to enable the children to spend their time.

"My real Eid will be the day that occupation forces get out of our country," said Ahmed Ghazal, a 50-year-old mason in the western neighborhood of Khadhra.

The father of four added that "I'm not in the mood to celebrate as two of my sons have been missing since last year, when they were snatched at an Iraqi army checkpoint."

Fears of attack kept most of Baghdad's Sunnis indoors, away from traditional visits to family and friends and strolls in the city streets and parks.

"We are telephoning our relatives and friends to wish them a happy holiday," said Jamal Salman, a 42-year-old Sunni governmental employee at the oil ministry from the Shiite-dominated eastern neighborhood of Baladiyat.

"There is no indication of Eid in our neighborhood among the Sunni families," Salman added. "We are waiting for tomorrow to join Shiites."

But others were optimistic enough to brave fears of attacks and security hassles to meet with their relatives in different Baghdad neighborhoods, saying the security situation has improved.

"I feel that this Eid is much better than the previous one and that I will visit my relatives in Amariyah," said Khalid Ibrahim, a 45-year-old governmental employee in Azamiyah.

"I find I have nothing to fear from as I feel things are getting better remarkably," added Ibrahim, a father of three.

In orbit above the Earth, a Soyuz craft carrying a Muslim astronaut from Malaysia docked at the international space station after a two-day trip from Russia's launch facility in Kazakhstan. Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor traveled to the outpost with Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield, Iowa, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

Sheikh Muszaphar took vacuum-packed Malaysian food, including skewered chicken, banana rolls, fermented soybean cakes and ginger jelly, to mark Eid in space.

He told reporters on Tuesday that his trip will be an inspiration for his southeast Asian nation as well as to other Muslims all over the world.