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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War and Spring Holiday Compete for Attention

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- It was unfortunate timing. As the first bombs rained down on the Iraqi capital early on Thursday morning, Azeris were donning their Sunday best for Novruz, the biggest holiday of the year.

Television networks were torn between showing the latest pictures of war-ravaged Baghdad, and the Azeri president, Heidar Aliyev, on a walkabout in Baku's walled city on the last day of the spring festivities.

Like millions of protesters around the world, most Azeris I have spoken to view the war in Iraq as unnecessary and barbaric.

Reaction to the war hasn't been as overt as it has been in, say, London or San Francisco; anti-war protests have been limited to a small group of elderly Communists waving tattered flags outside the U.S. Embassy. But privately people here are as angry that war has begun as anywhere else.

"What is the point of having a war if the only people who die are women and children?" my friend Rima sighed. "It's completely senseless."

But what about toppling Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who has been in power for 24 years and under whose regime thousands of Iraqis and Kurds have died?

"No one asks us whether we want our president, a tyrant who's been in power for longer than Saddam Hussein, to be toppled, do they?" was Rima's reply.

I suppose Aliyev and Hussein do have a certain amount in common: Both are aging, long-standing leaders of quasi-democracies, both have been accused of rigging elections to remain in power and both control vast reserves of oil.

I'm not sure how Aliyev would react to being likened to one of the world's greatest dictators -- probably water off a duck's back if his contemptuous response to opposition parties' calls for him to step down is anything to go by.

In any case, he was far too busy joining in the Novruz celebrations in Baku's Old Town last Friday to worry about such trifling matters. First of all he cracked a boiled egg -- a traditional Novruz game. Then he addressed a folk-dancing ensemble and finally he spoke to the shepherd who brings him a lamb every year to eat during the Novruz holiday.

On Friday evening, after everyone had gone indoors to eat plov and pakhlava with their relatives, I went to the Old Town myself. The bonfires built on every corner had died down and an old man with a white beard was jumping over the smoldering coals.

"What did you wish for?" I asked him when he had stopped. Jumping over fires at Novruz is supposed to bring you good luck.

"Just the usual," he said, "Health, wealth and happiness. And also an end to that absurd war in Iraq."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.