BAGHDAD — Families spread picnic blankets under the trees. An orange-and-white-striped train ferried wide-eyed children around a lake. Teenage boys tried to catch the eye of pretty girls. And roller-bladers weaved through the crowds.
For a few brief hours Wednesday, life returned to Zawra Park as families gathered to celebrate Nowruz, the New Year holiday, in the heart of war-torn Baghdad.
Outside the park's wrought iron gates, there were the usual threats of gunfire and mortar blasts, and in Baghdad alone police recovered 33 bodies, apparent victims of sectarian killings.
But inside the park, the scene was breathtaking for its normality.
"If I had a wish, it would be to see Iraq like this every day," said Ahmed Khalil, who with his friend Haidar Ismail was busy trying to collect girls' phone numbers.
The two young men ambled through the park, scanning the scene with deliberate nonchalance.
As one especially pretty girl walked by amid a cluster of chattering, veiled women, Khalil whispered under his breath, "I wish I were always in your eyes."
Without missing a beat, she shot back, "May God poke out your eyes."
Undeterred, the two young men pressed on.
"I haven't been lucky so far," Khalil admitted with a laugh.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq four years ago, there have been precious few opportunities in Baghdad for young couples to meet.
Anxious parents keep their children close to home, fearful of the daily bomb blasts and gunfire. Khalil's 19-year-old buddy, Ismail, dropped out of a teachers training course to avoid the dangerous commute.
But Wednesday was different.
Encouraged by the latest U.S. and Iraqi security crackdown, Kurdish and Arab families thronged to Zawra Park to mark Nowruz, which is celebrated on the first day of spring, particularly among Kurds.
It also is an important festival in Iran and other neighboring countries.
Since the security plan was launched Feb. 13, new police checkpoints and patrols are readily evident across the city, providing people with a sense of safety.
At the park, a long line of cars was carefully searched before the vehicles were allowed into the jammed parking lot. Men and women were then directed into separate lines for a quick pat-down.
Even at the height of Saddam Hussein's oppression of the Kurdish minority, Arab families often joined their Kurdish compatriots in celebrating Nowruz. Since the fall of Hussein, a Sunni Arab who persecuted the nation's Kurds and Shiite Arabs, the day also has become an expression of Kurdish pride and freedom.
According to Kurdish myth, this was the day that Kawa the blacksmith defeated the Assyrian tyrant Dehak and liberated the Kurdish and other peoples. Kawa is said to have led a popular rebellion and surrounded Dehak's palace. He then rushed past the guards, struck the king on the head with a hammer and dragged him off his throne. Kawa signaled his victory by lighting a fire on the mountaintop, a gesture Kurds recall with fireworks today.
For many Baghdad families, Wednesday was the first time in months that they were able to get together with relatives who live across town. They greeted each other with delighted hugs and kisses in the warm afternoon sun.
Picnicking families dotted the park's unkempt lawns. Some stretched out under the trees. Others crowded together under gazebos as their children played on a jungle gym, slide and swings.
The biggest crowds were gathered at the small amusement park, where children clamored to get on a rickety merry-go-round and gliding cups and saucers, oblivious to the peeling paint and rusty joints.
"I haven't seen so many people come out to celebrate," said Mohammed Hameed, 51, who sat on a blanket, snacking on cake and chips with his wife and children.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, many Kurdish families traveled to their homeland in the north to celebrate the holiday.
Sahla Zuhair, who had put on a glittery purple dress with matching veil for the occasion, beamed as she recalled the feasts, the music and dancing of those grand celebrations in the Kurdish hills.
"Most of my relatives are here in Baghdad, but we all used to travel to Irbil and celebrate amid the beautiful nature there in order not to forget our roots," Zuhair, 35, said as she waited in line with three excited children for their turn at a ride on the merry-go-round.
Few dare make the trip now on Iraq's treacherous roads, which are riddled with bombs and bandits.
"I long for the security of those days but dreaded Saddam's government so much," Zuhair said.
"It's all about give and take, and the current situation, as dreadful as it may seem, can't last forever."
At 3:30 p.m., families were still arriving to steal a few hours of fun before nightfall.
Two U.S. Army medical evacuation helicopters clattered above the peaceful scene, a jarring reminder of the war outside the park.
In addition to the 33 bodies found in Baghdad, at least 13 people were killed Wednesday and scores were injured in violence across Iraq.
The toll included eight people killed in a mortar barrage in Madaen, a town on the southern outskirts of the capital.
In Baghdad, one person was inadvertently killed when police set off a controlled explosion as they destroyed a massive truck bomb.
The truck was parked yards from the Finance Ministry, which was mostly empty because of the holiday.
A large quantity of explosives was discovered in the vehicle, hidden under crates of vegetables, police said.
Explosives experts were brought in, and security forces moved the vehicle to an open area.
But the blast was so powerful it killed the onlooker, injured seven others and damaged part of a major highway, police said.
Times staff writers Salar Jaff and Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Hillah and Basra contributed to this report.