A student celebration in Iraq's capital

The drums of war did not drown out the joyful rhythms of a graduation party.

In the shadow of possible war, Iraqis lead two parallel lives.

Spit-and-polish marches yesterday by interior-ministry troops, police, firemen and shroud-wrapped fedayeen martyr units sent a message that the regime is still in control, still fearless, and ready to "make the enemy burn." Television cameras recorded every moment as loyalists carrying portraits of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and forests of assault rifles held aloft passed by in procession.

Amid the military display and the bracing for battle with the US, however, Iraqis are also throwing themselves into life as if no clouds of danger loomed.

Students of Baghdad University's school of architecture celebrated their graduation as always, with a grand party that is eagerly awaited each year as one of the biggest bashes of the season. At the Sheraton Hotel ballroom on Monday night, the last night in which celebrations are permitted before the Islamic holiday of Muharram, some 60 students donned mortar boards and their best clothes and jewelry to mark a rite of passage familiar worldwide. On this occasion, the world was their oyster.

"Can you believe it?" asked a dazzling woman with long hair and red lipstick, pulling aside a visitor as the graduates started their walk through a homemade, balloon-festooned archway, to raucous cheers. "We Iraqis are having a party like this - living our lives - and there may be war around the corner."

"We've had 18 years with war and sanctions, so we are used to living with that threat," added one professor, whose family has several times this year stockpiled food, only to eat through it and re-supply.

The graduates marched in one at a time, strutting with confidence in glimmering suits and ties, or wearing sedate outfits more suited to weddings. Some graduates appeared sheepishly uncomfortable - or wore irrepressible grins - as the glare of the spotlight fell on them.

Families sat attentively, dressed elaborately for their sons' and daughters' golden moment and occasionally chasing after toddlers who got loose in the throng. Glasses of cola and slices of chocolate cake were brought to the banquet tables, and families ate as students announced prizes for most kindhearted, friendliest, most sensitive, most sociable, cutest, and most popular. The reception for Mr. Popularity nearly brought the house down.

Graduates of a five-year bachelor's course, these budding architects are at 23 the same age as many of the interior ministry troops who marched yesterday. But instead of gearing up for war, two pairs of these students have announced their engagement to be wed.

The awards segment gave way to a traditional Iraqi storyteller with a powerful baritone and a bawdy inclination, who told a story in vernacular Iraqi Arabic to a musical beat.

Then, like partying graduates the world over, the students took to the dance floor, their accompaniment pulsating Arab music played at ear-straining decibels. Women held hands and circled the floor with their dance steps; men formed tighter concentric circles, hand-in-hand, or broke loose and, arms aloft, went wild with their best friends.

Iraq's boxing champion, a bear of a man with a flattened nose and a barrel chest - he was apparently related to one of the students - made a picture-perfect mimic of a belly dancer, to the hoots of the students.

Even I was invited onto the dance floor. As is traditional, Iraqi men took turns dancing with me - arms up, or doing a low twist. It was impossible to say no to the jubilation. Students hoisted their peers into the air; sweat soaked through shirts and jackets in the heat of the moment. The specter of war couldn't have been farther away.

"I have a message for the world," shouted one student in English to me, over the cacophony. "Iraq has 8,000 years of history, and no one can destroy that."

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