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Iraqis try to preserve some sense of celebration on New Year's Eve

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Until Thursday, Tara Raad's New Year's Eve outfit—a green, sleeveless dress decorated with sparkling flowers that glimmer in the light—hadn't left her closet since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Thursday she packed it in her suitcase for a trip to Syria.

Eager to find a way to celebrate New Year's without violating Iraq's 11 p.m. curfew, she and a group of friends left Friday on the 10-hour trip to Damascus, where they hope to welcome 2006 without nagging concerns about security.

Fearful that public places might be bombed, and forbidden by curfews to be outside their homes at midnight, Iraqis are searching for ways to celebrate the New Year without running afoul of police or terrorists.

Many, primarily students, have signed up for packaged trips to Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Some are planning to spend the night at social clubs where parties are scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. and end at 5 a.m., when the curfew ends. Others are hosting sleepovers for friends and family at their houses.

Last year, Raad said she went to a party that ended around 10 p.m. When 2005 began, the partygoers called each other on the phone.

"We, like other young people in the world, have the right to party," Raad said. "We were optimistic after the fall of Baghdad. We didn't expect it would be so bad that we would have to travel to celebrate the New Year."

Experts here said that while the curfew may be necessary, it has had a particularly tough impact on a city that used to celebrate its nightlife. Nighttime was a particularly pleasant time to meet friends, especially in the summer, when daytime temperatures can be debilitating.

"Iraqis are under so much mental pressure and yet have so few options for releasing that tension," said Ihsan Mohammed al-Hassan, a professor of sociology at Baghdad University. "The Iraqis had no political freedom in the past, but enjoyed personal freedom. Now after the fall, they have political freedom, but lost their personal freedom."

Residents here have adjusted their wedding and holiday celebrations to accommodate the curfew, scheduling what used to be evening events during daylight hours.

But most agree that adjustment doesn't work for a New Year's Eve party.

Nadeem Mudhafar, 22, a fourth-year dentistry student, said he grew up going to Mass at midnight. The church has moved it to 9 p.m., and his parents still attend. But he doesn't.

"People used to come from different places for the New Year, but now we can only celebrate with our relatives or friends who live in our street and can spend the night," Mudhafar said.

So Mudhafar gathered with friends Thursday for a daylight barbecue on a bridge over the Tigris— "the only way I could be with my friends."

Teeba Ahmed, 25, an administrator from Baghdad, was determined not to spend this year's New Year's Eve the way she spent last year's—at home, watching television. So she traveled to Egypt earlier this week and is staying at a five-star hotel with 13 other friends. The party they'll attend costs $150 each, but Ahmed, reached by phone, says she feels liberated.

"I am having such a great time I don't want to sleep at night. I don't want to waste a minute. We come back at 4 in the morning," she said.

Those who've stayed behind to party are taking security precautions. Many are saying little about their party plans, fearing that terrorists will attack their festivities, either on religious grounds or as a way to inflict large casualties.

On a flyer for one social club in Baghdad, revelers were told they'd have to leave their weapons at the information desk before they could enter the hall.

The manager of the club spoke only without attribution because he feared someone might attack the event.

He noted that his members had asked for the party, which will cost $100 per couple.

"People are just so frustrated," the manager said.

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(Alawsy is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NEWYEARS

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