BAGHDAD – Sunni Muslims marked the beginning of the Eid al-Adha holiday Wednesday, with thousands of worshippers gathering in mosques around Baghdad in an atmosphere of optimism after months of declining violence.
More than 10,000 faithful showed at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azamiyah at sunrise to perform the first prayers for the four-day holiday. Locals said they felt safer during the Eid this year, but security was still increased at mosques and other holy sites around the Iraqi capital, with extra bomb-detecting equipment added. Extra security also was ordered for amusement parks and other places likely to draw crowds.
"This Eid differs from the previous ones, as we have received unexpected numbers of worshippers," Jamal al-Kubaisi, imam of Abu Hanifa, the biggest Sunni mosque in the Iraqi capital, told The Associated Press.
He said there were so many people at the mosque that they spilled over into the backyard of the mosque and into the streets.
Al-Kubaisi stayed away from politics in delivering his sermon, instead saying he wanted to focus on the positive developments of late.
"I am so optimistic this Eid, and I wanted to avoid talking about politics so as not to bother people while I see happiness on their faces," he said. "This means that ordinary life has turned back to Azamiyah."
In the neighborhood, there is little life after dark and it is heavily patrolled by U.S. troops. Residents there still complain of lengthy power outages, sewage flooding and a shortage of heating oil.
But violence across Iraq has fallen sharply, mostly because of an influx of U.S. troops last summer, the freeze on activities of the Mahdi Army militia and the growth of anti-al-Qaida groups of citizens.
After prayers, thousands of the faithful made their way through the crowd, shaking hands and greeting one another. Outside bakeries, long lines spilled onto the sidewalks for the traditional Eid breakfast of sweet bread with cream.
"We're so happy with this Eid, we feel secure. Shops are open, children are wearing their new clothes, and there is stability and security in our neighborhood," said Ahmed al-Adhami, a 38-year-old resident of Azamiyah.
Waleed al-Obaidi said that "this is the first Eid since the (U.S.-led 2003) invasion where we feel like we're in a relatively secure condition."
"We hope that the next Eid will witness a liberated Iraq with united Iraqis, no more militias and no more killings," he said.
Eid al-Adha is a holy celebration for Muslims, commemorating the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. According to Muslim tradition, after Abraham expresses his willingness, God sends the prophet two sheep instead for slaughter.
But the Eid is also marked by politics.
Sunnis and Shiites — who both celebrate the day — often announce it on different days, reflecting tensions between the two sects. This year, Iraqi Shiites will mark Eid on Friday.
Rival Arab countries often do the same. The day is set by sighting of the moon, with Muslims traditionally following a lunar calendar for its holy days.