Fleeing heat, bombs, Iraqis go north for holiday

Fleeing heat, bombs, Ira

Iraqis celebrating the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan set off in droves Sunday on family trips to the country's northern Kurdish region, a prized escape from the sporadic violence that still batters the capital and other cities. Such journeys by road - perilous in years past - have greatly increased because of an overall improvement in security around the country, and this year Kurdish authorities in the self-governing region eased entry procedures and ran TV ads to attract visitors from the rest of Iraq. For the war-weary traveler, the Kurdish region offers not just a refuge from violence but also reliable electricity, stunning natural beauty, cooler weather and fewer social restrictions. "We have heard from people who have been there ... that it's like being in a different country," said Haidr Mohammed Ali, a 36-year-old government employee from Baghdad who was taking his wife, two children and his cousin's family to the Kurdish city of Irbil by minibus. In years past, many Iraqis spent the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday indoors out of fear. Some of those who did venture out were killed by car bombs that tore apart markets and parks. Mosques were emptied of worshippers. Instead of visiting one another, relatives would speak by telephone. For most Muslims, this year's holiday began Sunday; others will celebrate starting Monday. Throughout the more than six years of war, Iraqi Kurdistan - which runs its own affairs and is protected by its own militia force known as the peshmerga - has been safer than the rest of the country. It is home to some of the country's most beautiful countryside, attracting even a handful of tourists from the US and Europe to see its waterfalls, mountains and lakes. Muslims typically celebrate Eid al-Fitr by visiting relatives and packing into parks to mark the end of a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting. Many also visit family graves. In the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, Baghdad resident Tamara Murad was out shopping for brand-name clothes that she cannot find in the capital. The 24-year-old said she feels "suffocated" by Baghdad's violence and its more conservative social environment. She and a female cousin were dressed in clothing young women would not dare to wear in Baghdad - Murad in jeans and a low-cut T-shirt and her cousin in a short skirt. "We came here because in Baghdad we do not feel that we are free to wear what we want or walk on the street without the fear of being kidnapped or targeted by explosions," she said. "We came here to smell the scent of freedom. But the fact that this journey must come to an end and we must head back to Baghdad, where we wither with the bitterness of life, spoils my happiness," she said. Over the years, many Iraqi artists, doctors, professors and others have moved to the Kurdish north for its safety. An American-style university opened in January 2008 in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad and a world apart from its trouble. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's Kurdish minority - which suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein's government - came under the protection of U.S.-led air patrols and broke nearly all ties with Baghdad. During the insurgency that followed the March 2003 US-led invasion, Kurdistan remained safer ground. Kurdistan's Tourism Ministry, which has renovated resorts and advertised on satellite TV, did not have exact figures but said it estimated the number of visitors had doubled compared with last year's Eid. On Sunday, Iraqi visitors packed markets to buy clothes and holiday sweets. The owner of one of Sulaimaniyah's best-loved sweet shops was happy to see Arab tourists coming to try a sugary desert known as mann al-samma, or the sweet of heaven. It is made with the fruit of a mountain tree and is found nowhere else. "My income depends greatly on Arab tourists coming from Baghdad and southern Iraq," said Tawfiq al-Halawji. "I expect a big increase in my income during Eid because more people are coming." In Baghdad, many Eid celebrants tried hard not to be consumed by the capital's woes. They danced, greeted one another warmly at mosques and visited an amusement park. And there was one auspicious sign welcomed by all: The night before, the drought-stricken country got a rare heavy rain storm. "Although I lost two sons in the sectarian strife, I am very optimistic this Eid. I feel that relief is coming to Iraqis," said housewife Umm Mohammed after Eid prayers. "What makes me more optimistic is to see that rain fell on the eve of Eid, the rain which we were deprived of for years."