(AFP) – May 24, 2008
MOSUL, Iraq (AFP) — Ata Taha tied the knot with his university sweetheart in a popular park and traditional meeting point for lovers in Iraq's northern city of Mosul -- but only after Al-Qaeda went on the retreat.
"My family had advised me to have a private wedding or celebrate abroad but I stood my ground," the 26-year-old said proudly. "I got my wish -- I married my colleague and we did so in public."
Al-Qaeda militants had banned all public expressions of joy in Mosul, and even prevented the sale of a local popular bread, claiming that it was a breach of Muslim tradition.
In mid-May Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said a crackdown had begun against a Sunni area of Mosul that the American military describes as the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda jihadists in Iraq.
According to the US military at least 1,200 suspects -- including about 200 Al-Qaeda militants -- have been arrested since the Iraqi-led and US-backed operation was launched on May 14, and the level of attacks has also dropped.
Taha and his fiancee took advantage of the offensive against Al-Qaeda to don their wedding finery and head for the so-called "Forest Park" where newlyweds traditionally pose for pictures surrounded by friends and family.
Frightened residents deserted the park in north Mosul after radical Al-Qaeda militants imposed their extremist view of Islam on the city.
But since the local campaign against Al-Qaeda began residents have been returning in force to celebrate weddings in the park, especially at weekends.
Guests gather there both to congratulate the newlyweds and to pose for pictures with the couple.
"The extremist factions imposed their values on us with rhetoric and fatwas (decrees) that have nothing to do with real Islam," said Taha.
Coffee shops and restaurants, as well as other favourite meeting spots like the corniche overlooking the Tigris River in downtown Mosul, have also buzzed with activity since the anti-Al Qaeda operation got under way.
All across the city, residents have taken on a new lease on life.
Streets are thronged with pedestrians and market stalls brim anew with fruit and vegetables -- including tomatoes and cucumbers displayed side by side in clear defiance to the Islamists who had banned this as sexually provocative.
The local Iraqi bread known as "sammoun" -- also prohibited by the militants who argued that it did not exist in the time of the Prophet Mohammed -- can now be found again in bakeries.
For schoolteacher Zakia Abdullah al-Badrani, Mosul is "a land of civilisations that should not be soiled by obscurantists" such as Al-Qaeda.
Mosul, with its population of 1.5 million, is the provincial capital of Nineveh -- itself the capital of the once powerful Assyrian empire -- and is home to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Kurds and Christians.
"We always lived in harmony with the other communities and this is what encouraged me to come back," said Gergis Hannah, a Christian who fled his hometown two years ago but returned at the onset of the military push against the jihadists.
Once Al-Qaeda is uprooted from Mosul "the government must push for reconciliation" among all of the city's communities, Hannah added.
Soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles continue to patrol the streets of Mosul in a reminder that the threat posed by Al-Qaeda has not been removed completely.
But the military met no resistance as its forces rolled into Mosul, and many residents believe the Islamists either fled the city in the face of the advance or went to ground.
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