BAGHDAD — Car bombings and killings have cast a shadow on Ramadan here since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But now, with a decline in the bloodshed, Iraqis hope Islam's holiest month will be reminiscent of calmer times.
This year, people are looking forward to more relaxed nights with families and friends. A total of 430 Iraqi civilians, soldiers and police officers were killed nationwide last month compared with 1,860 during the same period last year.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar, when the prophet Muhammad is said to have received the first revelation of the Koran. The faithful mark the period by asking forgiveness for their sins, performing good deeds and helping the poor.
Ramadan began in Iraq on Monday for Sunni Arabs and Tuesday for the Shiite majority, determined by each sect's senior clerics receiving reports of the sighting of the crescent moon.
"This Ramadan, we have confidence in our government," said Akram Nouri, a political science professor at Baghdad University, who was walking on a quiet street in the capital's Karada district. "We feel they are capable of managing any riot that may occur. There are many changes. The displaced are returning to their homes."
Qassim Mohammed, who owns a clothing shop in Karada, said that he appreciated the decrease in violence, but he still wished for a steady supply of electricity -- the extreme heat during blackouts, even with generators, makes fasting difficult.
"Of course this makes Ramadan even harder for us," he said. "We want better services and most importantly electricity."
Muqdad Hammed, 23, never thought of going out during Ramadan last year. Now he looks forward to the nights after breaking the fast.
"We hang around in alleyways as late as 1 a.m. playing the traditional games," he said. Among those games is mahaibis, in which one person on a team conceals a ring in his hand and the other team must guess who has it.
In Baghdad's eastern neighborhood of Shaab, Ali Mohammed, 24, said that despite high food prices, he wants to take his family out to celebrate in parks and restaurants.
"There will be no bloody explosions and killing. I'm optimistic that Ramadan will be full of prosperity and peace for all," Mohammed said. "Nothing bothers me in Ramadan, just the heat."
A palpable desire for better governance and improved services was voiced in quieter parts of the country, such as the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.
"Traveling to the capital was a problem a year ago, but not anymore," said Dr. Ahmed Jaafar. But improved security is not enough.
"There is the unsolved dilemma of electricity, which we don't see a solution for in the horizon," he said. "There is also the problem of administrative corruption and the political problems."
Tuesday was not free of violence. Four civilians and a soldier were killed in three bombings in the capital.
In the northern city of Mosul, a truck bomb targeting an Iraqi army convoy claimed the lives of four civilians. Another car bomb later killed a soldier.
Late Monday, a teenage suicide bomber posing as a perfume seller attacked a leader of the U.S.-funded Sunni paramilitary groups, called the Sons of Iraq, in Tarmiya, just north of Baghdad. The blast killed a Sunni fighter and wounded the paramilitary commander, Emad Said Jassim, whose shrapnel-riddled leg had to be amputated. Four of Jassim's fighters and three civilians also were injured.
The U.S. military reported the death of a soldier in a noncombat incident Tuesday. More than 4,150 American troops have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Also Tuesday, an Iraqi government policy took effect under which the Iraqi army is to evict squatters and return displaced people to their homes. At least 1.5 million people fled their houses after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 triggered open sectarian warfare.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Usama Redha in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.