BAGHDAD - Iraq's capital is embracing Valentine's Day this year with a huge public display of affection in what its residents say is the nation's most amorous celebration of the holiday ever.
Street corners across Baghdad are blanketed with the synthetic red fur of teddy bears, while silken nighties and lip-shaped satin pillows hang in store fronts.
It's a vivid counterpoint to a place that's still a far cry from warm and fuzzy — with bombings remaining a fact of life since the withdrawal of U.S. forces two months ago.
"Valentine's Day is for everybody — not only for lovers," said Lina, a school administrator who would only identify herself by her first name. She was among the throngs browsing through an array of plush kittens, scented candles, red lamps and heart-shaped purses outside a store this weekend in the Baghdad downtown shopping district of Karradah.
"It's for you and I, for me and my brother, even for someone on the street. It's not just about me and my fiance," Lina said. "Iraqis need happy moments to make them forget what they have been through — we have had enough sadness."
After decades of war and dictator rule, and with improving security, Iraqis say they are able to relax and enjoy Valentine's this year. Others believe the recent burst of text messages, mobile phones and use of the Internet among Iraqi youth has helped foster romance like never before.
But Valentine's Day may come with its own baggage.
Conservative Muslims, from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, have strongly frowned on the holiday's growing popularity around the world as an encouragement of perceived Western decadence and premarital sex.
Last year, Iran banned cards, gifts and other tokens of the day, which tradition says is named after one of several early Christian martyrs. Saudi Arabia's feared religious police launched patrols each year to stamp out any stores displaying too much red or selling heart-shaped products this time of year.
So far, however, Iraq appears to be drifting the way of other Middle East centres such as Dubai or Beirut that stock shelves high with chocolates, flowers and other trappings of the day.
Some Iraqis are using the day to proclaim that love conquers all — including studying.
At the Technology Institute in Baghdad's southeastern Zafaraniyah area, students will hold a months-delayed meet-and-greet for university freshmen on Tuesday. Usually the gathering is held in December when the semester began, but 21-year-old Muataz Mohammed said scheduling it for Valentine's Day might more easily stoke friendships.
"It is a very special day," said Mohammed, who plans to wear a red shirt and carry red roses to the party. Women students are planning to wear red shirts and headscarves.
From his Karradah storefront, Abdul-Wahab Abdul-Rahaman has watched toddler-sized red teddy bears and plush hearts in high demand this year. He speculates it's because young lovers now meet and talk more frequently with the help of their mobile phones.
Mobile phones, satellite TV and the Internet were virtually banned during Saddam's regime, and the war and rampant violence after his ouster discouraged tech companies from marketing Iraq until the last few years.
"The new communication means help making relationships between the sexes faster than before," Abdul-Wahab said. "I think I will sell all my Valentine's Day products as the occasion is becoming more popular among Iraqis year after year."
Iraq remains a relatively conservative society, and only recently have many unmarried couples dared to be without a chaperone in public.
Picking out gifts for each other in Karradah, Simaa Riyadh, 27, said she believes more lovers are open with their affections. Her fiance, Ammar Riyadh, said he feels security is good enough now to show a little tenderness.
"It's a wonderful day," Riyadh said, smiling.
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.