BAGHDAD, Iraq – A three-day holiday began for Sunni Arabs in Iraq on Thursday, ending a month of fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and unusual signs of celebration emerged in war-torn cities.
In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, children appeared on the streets in new clothes, and the amusement park was crowded with families for the start of the Eid al-Fitr (search) holiday.
But long-standing animosity to U.S. forces also was apparent in the mostly Sunni city 80 miles north of Baghdad.
"The real Eid for Iraqis will be the day that occupation forces get out of our country," said Aqel Omar, 48, a retired government employee, as he gathered with about 30 relatives at the home of their local tribesman.
"I hope that next year our country is liberated and stable and that we can rebuild it again," he said in an interview.
Several attacks by Sunni-led insurgents had made Wednesday a deadly day in Iraq, and on Thursday the country's most feared militant group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, said it has sentenced to death two Moroccan embassy employees kidnapped last month in Iraq.
On Wednesday, 20 people were killed when a homicide bomber detonated a minibus packed with explosives in an outdoor market crowded with holiday shoppers on Wednesday. Another 60 people were wounded in the attack in Musayyib (search), a Shiite Muslim town on the Euphrates River, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. A local doctor, Ali Abbas, said the wounded included nine children and four women.
On July 16, nearly 100 people died in a suicide bombing in front of a Shiite mosque near the same site in Musayyib.
Six U.S. troops also were killed Wednesday, four of them during fighting in and around Ramadi (search) that involved a roadside bomb and a helicopter crash. The city is 70 miles west of Baghdad.
In Tikrit, the day began for many Sunnis with early morning services at their mosques. At one, a preacher called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces but his sermon also urged Sunnis to vote in Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary election.
Most Sunnis boycotted the Jan. 30 vote that elected the current interim parliament, but many turned up for the constitutional referendum on Oct. 15.
As Eid began in Tikrit, no American patrols were seen on the streets for the first time in weeks. Iraqi police and soldiers were on duty instead, in an apparent effort to reduce the chance of violence ruining the holiday.
Eid celebrations also were taking place in Baghdad's mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah (search). Iraqi and U.S. troops stepped up patrols in the area as children flocked to a small park where they took rides on a small Ferris wheel and a horse-drawn carriage.
But Zuhair Shihab, 45, the owner of a stall selling food there, said he felt sad, having just heard that the body of one of his friends had been found on a street in Baghdad, 10 days after he had been kidnapped.
Such killings are fairly common in Baghdad, some the result of fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, others the result of criminals seeking ransom for hostages.
Shihab also was angered by the presence of the coalition forces.
"What kind of Eid we can we celebrate in the presence of U.S. troops?" he said in an interview. "They brought all this misery to us."
Before the Iraq war, the Eid al-Fitr holiday often brought a windfall for shop and restaurant owners, and a time of relaxation and celebration for many Iraqis and their families and friends.
But two and a half years after the U.S.-led invasion, fighting between coalition forces and insurgents, and the militants' use of suicide bombers and roadside bombs, often make security a top priority for Iraqi families. Some feel they have to closely guard their homes, day and night.
The timing of this year's Eid holiday also is another sign of the deep divisions that developed between minority Sunnis and majority Shiites under Saddam, a Sunni who persecuted many Shiites during his rule.
The months of the Muslim calendar are lunar. Therefore, they start when the new moon is spotted in the sky by trustworthy members of the community. Based on that procedure, Sunni clerics decided that Eid would begin on Thursday this year, while Shiites chose Friday.