TIKRIT, Iraq – Fireworks lit the night sky over Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit (search) as U.S. troops gathered to celebrate the 4th of July holiday with Iraqi National Guard soldiers on a bank overlooking the Tigris River.
"This right here is much better than what we're used to," said Spc. Leroy Botello, a 23-year-old infantryman from San Antonio, Texas. "It's a lot more enjoyable seeing this than mortars or rockets," he said late Sunday after the $167,000 Independence Day display.
Thousands of troops celebrated at one of Saddam's former palaces here, decked out inside with a buffet featuring hamburgers and hot dogs on one side, and traditional Iraqi dishes on the other.
Similar Independence Day (search) celebrations were held throughout Iraq.
At Camp Victory (search) outside Baghdad, soldiers held a 10-kilometer fun run at dawn, when the temperature dropped to a relatively cool 80. At midmorning, the 1st Cavalry Division kicked off a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
Mess hall cooks barbecued T-bone steaks, burgers, hot dogs and chicken and decorated cakes and pies in red, white and blue icing. The military held a video game tournament and presented a five-piece, all-woman hard rock band to perform for the troops at the came.
Celebrations like the one in Tikrit would have been unheard of a year ago, when the town was a hotbed of anti-U.S. resistance and U.S. troops came under frequent attack by insurgents.
Today, seven months after Saddam was captured hiding in a hole near here, attacks in Tikrit have eased significantly, with only two mortar strikes reported in the last month and half.
"A lot has changed," said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commands the roughly 22,000 troops of the 1st Infantry Division, which is headquartered in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. "I think large numbers of Saddam loyalists have realized there's a better alternative."
Saddam and 11 other former top Iraqi officials faced a judge in Baghdad on Thursday, the first step toward a trial and a sight many Iraqis welcomed.
In Tikrit, however, hundreds of Saddam supporters marched through the streets Saturday calling any trial by the Iraqi Special Tribunal "illegitimate." As U.S. helicopters patrolled overhead, marchers chanted and held up framed posters of the deposed leader.
As troops celebrated with Army band tunes Sunday, several minutes of gunfire was audible in the distance.
Botello said the gunfire was "unusual these days" and appeared to be coming from outside one of the base gates, but neither he nor other military officials had details.
Sunday's celebrations took place at Forward Operating Base Danger, the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters.
The base has taken on decidedly American characteristics.
Rooms in Saddam's former palaces feature a swimming pool with lifeguard posts, and tired troops can head to a beauty parlor, a masseuse, a movie theater or the Army chapel. Soldiers have also organized poetry nights, standup comedy and break-dancing classes.
If Tikrit is quieter than it used to be, violence has yet to ease elsewhere in Iraq despite the June 28 sovereignty transfer.
Batiste said car bombs had killed 267 Iraqis and wounded 788 more across the country in the last three months. Over the same period, roadside bombs -- the scourge of U.S.-led coalition forces -- have killed 103 Iraqis and wounded 268 others, he said.