BAGHDAD - On New Year's Eve, Ridaa al-Azzawi squeezed into his pointy snakeskin boots, his tight black sweater and his corduroy jeans, hustled down to a Baghdad hotel ballroom and partied for peace.
The New Year arrived in a less-violent Baghdad and residents said it was the first real party they had seen in years.
At the stroke of midnight, exuberant locals fired into the air with automatic rifles, sending red tracer fire streaking over the city, as fireworks lit up the sky.
While the city is still far from peaceful and many of the festive gatherings had a tentative feel, many said it was a happier occasion than they could have dared to hope for just a few months ago.
Al-Azzawi, a 22-year-old student taking a break from dancing to a traditional Iraqi band in the ballroom of the Palestine Hotel, said: "The security has changed and it took us all by surprise. We're very happy. Especially us young people.
"I haven't seen such a happy crowd in so long. I wanted to see if I could maybe meet a few girls," said Al-Azzawi
Salah al-Lami, 27, the singer who performed at the Palestine ballroom and then for another New Year's Eve crowd at the Sheraton Hotel across the street said: "I only hope the Iraqi people can enjoy more happy times like this.
"This will be the year that we take our freedom," Al-Lami said after singing through a boisterous set in front of a packed dance floor.
Belly dancers also took the stage and revellers showered a female singer with dinar notes, the Iraqi audience's ultimate sign of approval.
Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically in the past few months. US forces say attacks are down 60percent since June.
Though 2007 was the deadliest year of the war for US troops, December was the least-deadly month for the US-led coalition since the war began.
Only 22 US and allied soldiers were killed in December, compared with 131 in May.
Still, violence has not ceased. A suicide car bomb in a town north of Baghdad killed 11 people including five children on the morning of New Year's Eve. Two suicide bombs killed at least 33 people on Christmas Day.
But as the New Year's parties went on, the violence seemed to be forgotten.
In Karrada, the downtown Baghdad shopping neighbourhood, young people celebrated with fireworks, laughing and spraying each other with aerosol foam.
Economics student Afir Ali, 21, turned up at the Palestine ballroom in a faux-suede blazer and jeans.
"We thank God. It is a beautiful feeling. We wish we could do this every day," he said.
"We want to enjoy life. We've had enough of violence," Ali said. - Reuters