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World: Norouz Celebrations Herald Onset Of Spring

Prague, 20 March (RFE/RL) -- Afghan men perform a circle dance in Kabul, part of celebrations for the new year, or Norouz.

This public display of music and dancing would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago under the strict rule of the Taliban Islamic militia, which banned both.

The Norouz festival itself was forbidden, because it predates Islam. That has all changed.

Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai marked Norouz by launching a project that will see nearly one million trees planted in and around the capital this week.

And in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif alone, some 10,000 people are expected to see in Norouz, which heralds the onset of spring.

It's not just Afghans who are bringing in the new year. Norouz is a festival, too, for people throughout Central Asia, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East.

In Uzbekistan yesterday, thousands gathered to watch a large open-air performance with singers, sportsmen, and folk musicians.

In Iran, the president and the supreme leader both gave Norouz speeches on state television.

President Mohammad Khatami called for moderation to prevail over extremism, for kindness to prevail over violence. Khatami also expressed the hope that collective efforts will solve the country's internal and external problems.

In his speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. had failed in what he called its efforts to undermine the Islamic republic.

He said those included attempts to "provoke unrest" last summer -- a reference to last July's short-lived student protests -- and U.S. pressure over Iran's nuclear program.

But while this Norouz, for most, is a time to celebrate, for one community it's been declared a day of mourning.

In Syria, Kurdish leaders called for Norouz festivities there to be abandoned out of respect for dozens killed in six days of clashes with Syrian police and Arab civilians.

They called on Syria's estimated 1.5 million Kurds to refrain from lighting new year bonfires out of respect for the at least 25 people killed.