Iraqis bid official farewell to winter Saturday with a national festival that provided an occasion to briefly forget 7 1/2 years of hardship they blamed on U.N. sanctions.

In an annual tradition, tens of thousands of families gathered at the ruins of a mammoth 3rd century palace for daylong picnics, singing, dancing or simply relaxing in the sun. Similar celebrations were held in other parts of the country.The festival is held March 21 to herald the brief Iraqi spring, which will give way to a blistering desert summer in a few weeks.

Families spread rugs on the ground, set up kettles and stoves and heated food while children played badminton nearby. Others strung ropes across trees to make swings. Photographers did brisk business, snapping photos for 35 cents each.

"I have shot one roll already and the day is still long. People are in a good mood today," said Rasheed Shaker Mohsin, a young man with a beaten Leica slung around his neck.

Other young men fired air guns in shooting contests near the ancient brown brick walls of Tak Kisra, about 20 miles east of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

The 110-foot high and 75-foot wide arch is the widest single-span vault of unreinforced brickwork in the world and rivals Ur and Babylon as a tourist destination.

The area around the arch, a park of date palm trees on the site of the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon, is named after Salman Pak, a Persian convert to Islam and the patron saint of barbers.

Amid the revelry Saturday, traditional Arab hospitality was as much on display as the hardships that Iraqis have faced since the United Nations imposed sweeping economic sanctions in 1990 following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The invasion led to the gulf war.

The United States and other U.N. members say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has prolonged his people's suffering by not cooperating with U.N. weapons inspections. The sanctions were to stay in place until U.N. inspectors certify Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction.