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Iraqis in festive mood on eve of U.S. troop exit

People sing and dance and set off fireworks to celebrate their 'day of national sovereignty' as U.S. troops prepare to leave cities and hand over security to the Iraqi government.

June 30, 2009|Caesar Ahmed

BAGHDAD — An old man blared on a trumpet, policemen danced in the back of their pickup trucks and a singer from the days of Saddam Hussein trilled in a city park, all to celebrate the new era.

Monday night was a time for Iraqis to bask in their sovereignty as they counted down to today, the formal departure date of U.S. forces from their cities.

In the days ahead, Iraqis may still worry about the possibility of increased sectarian violence, the lackluster economy and a dearth of basic services. But on Monday night, they heeded Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's declaration that June 30 will be remembered as a great day for Iraq, "a day of national sovereignty."

Fireworks exploded over the city and several thousand people crowded into central Baghdad's Zawra Park, ignoring a mild dust storm to say goodbye to more than six years of American forces patrolling their major cities.

Convoys of local police stood on the back of their armored trucks, dancing and waving their scuffed assault rifles to the rhythm of Iraqi folk music.

Young men packed the park, intoxicated by the fact that responsibility for their nation's security again belonged to them.

An old woman in a black robe and headdress danced and chanted in front of them: "We sacrificed our lives for Iraq."

To the beat of drums, the men held hands and kicked their feet in the traditional Iraqi dance, called the chobi.

To the stage came famed singer Salah Hassan, who had left the country a decade ago but returned for the big party. The crowd roared in approval. The audience held cellphones aloft to snap photos as he crooned: "Iraq is loyal to us . . . the people of Iraq love their country."

His words evoked the hard times after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

"I wish I could walk on Sadoun Street with my friends again, Iraq is for Iraqis only, I hope that my soul can become a bird to visit you," he sang.

Ali Kamal Din, an agriculture professor, came to Baghdad from Hillah for the party.

"Enough killing, enough torture. It's time for us to live in peace to seek our interests. We hope that everyone will realize this and let us start a new stage and solve our problems ourselves," he said.

"I fled to Syria and Egypt. Now I am back here to start a new peaceful life. Hopefully today will be a new start for everyone."

Qasim Sultan, who had sung odes to Saddam Hussein's regime before the Americans toppled him in 2003, was also delighted to be home and performing again in Baghdad.

"I really hope that all Iraqis will live in prosperity from its north to its south. We hope we will sing in all the provinces of Iraq like we used to do before," he said.

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Ahmed is a Times staff writer. Staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.

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