Iraq Scores A Rare Victory With Soccer

Iraqi soldier shoots in the air as people, waving Iraqi flag, celebrate in streets of central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 29, 2007. Iraqi national soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asian Cup soccer final played in Jakarta. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Wild celebrations erupted across this war-ravaged nation.

Tens of thousands — in the Shiite south, mixed Sunni-Shiite Baghdad and the Kurdish north — poured into usually treacherous streets to share a rare moment of national unity and a stunning triumph of the national team in Asia's most prestigious soccer competition.

Celebrating a 1-0 win over three-time champions Saudi Arabia in Jakarta, Indonesia, Iraqis danced, sang and waved Iraqi flags and team posters on the streets of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah, the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala and Irbil and Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan.

Loud chants of "Long live Iraq" and "Baghdad is victorious" rang out across the country as Iraqis, pushed to despair by four years of unabated violence, basked in national pride. The revelers were mostly men — young and old. Many took their shirts off to display the red, white and black colors of the Iraqi flag.

Reporters of the state Iraqiya television wrapped themselves with Iraqi flags as they interviewed revelers on the streets. Some joined in the chanting.

Within seconds of the final whistle, celebratory fire echoed across the skies of Baghdad and elsewhere despite a government ban and the threat of arrest by authorities.

At least four people were killed and scores wounded by the gunfire, but, as night fell on the country, there were no reports of bombings like the pair that killed at least 50 and wounded dozens in Baghdad Wednesday during celebrations of Iraq's semifinal win over South Korea.

Authorities said they foiled a potential car bomber in southwestern Baghdad after he refused to stop at a checkpoint and appeared headed toward a crowd of revelers.

Iraqi authorities announced a ban on vehicles in and around the capital from shortly before the game began in an effort to prevent a repeat of last week's violence. The ban, which will be lifted at 6 a.m. Monday, appeared successful in stopping car bombers.

"The victory of our Iraqi soccer team is a wonderful gift to Iraqis who have been suffering from the killing, car bombs, abductions and other violent acts," said Falah Ibrahim, a 44-year-old resident of Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district.

Sunday's 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia capped a three-week Asian Cup campaign by The Lions of the Two Rivers. Iraqis were captivated, if only temporarily, and spoke of hope even as years of violence and sectarian strife have many asking if ethnically and religiously divided Iraq can survive as one nation.

The team's players do not live in Iraq and earn their wages playing for teams across the Middle East. Because of tenuous security at home, wars and U.N. sanctions, the men had not played a home game in 17 years and must train and practice abroad.

"We are celebrating because this team represents all Iraqi sects," said Awas Khalid, one of the thousands of Kurds who celebrated the win in Sulaimaniyah. It is a main city in Iraq's Kurdish north, where secessionist sentiment has been on the rise.

"This team is for everyone," said Khalid as other revelers around him waved Iraqi flags along with the Kurdish green-yellow-red-white ones. They also chanted "Baghdad is victorious" in Arabic, not their native Kurdish.

The mixed makeup of the winning national team was interpreted by many Iraqis as proof that politicians were more concerned with their narrow sectarian agendas than national interest, thus preventing reconciliation among rival factions.

"The politicians have divided us and these athletes united us," said 24-year-old Shiite Tareq Yassin, taking a break from dancing with hundreds of other revelers in the streets of Amin, a southeastern Baghdad neighborhood. "I am usually very shy. Today, I forgot my shyness and everything else and I could only think of Iraq."

But the shaming of Iraqi politicians by the team's win and the reaction of Iraqis to their triumph did not stop Nouri al-Maliki, the embattled Shiite prime minister, from trying to stand in the sunshine of the team's success.

With barely five minutes of play in Sunday's final, state television reported in a "newsbreak" that he would reward every player with a $10,000 bonus.

Soon after the final whistle, the station reported that al-Maliki was congratulating team members on the telephone, but live coverage showed the entire squad celebrating on the pitch.

Al-Maliki later issued a statement in flowery Arabic on the team's win.

"There is a big difference between The Lions of the Two Rivers who struggle to put a smile on the faces of their people and those who work in dark corners strewing death and sorrow in the paths of innocent people. We are proud of you. Your deserve all our love and respect."

In Other Developments:
  • The Iraqi government has refused to take control of more than 2,000 U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, a move that could jeopardize the country's credit line and cost American taxpayers, according to a report by an American watchdog agency.
  • Two U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday in separate attacks in Iraq, the military said. One U.S. soldier Multi-National Division — Baghdad was killed by small-arms fire during combat operations north of Baghdad, the military said. Another died in fighting in an eastern section of the capital, according to a separate statement.
  • Gunmen opened fire on shoppers in a Shiite Turkomen village southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing seven people and wounding six, police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said. Local residents blamed al Qaeda in Iraq but the oil-rich city also has seen rising ethnic tensions amid disputes over Kurdish calls to incorporate it into their autonomous region.
  • Iraqi lawyers in Baghdad held a one-day strike to protest the violence that has struck the profession and to call on the government to provide them with protection.

    President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, ordered an additional $10,000 reward for the players and twice that for Sunday's goal scorer Younis Mahmoud, a Sunni Arab, who scored from a pass from Mulla Mohammed, the team's only Kurdish player.

    Most other players are Shiites, and Shiites back home had light heartedly dubbed Sunday's game against the Sunni-dominated Saudis an "Ali vs Omar" encounter. That played on the belief among some Shiites that Omar Ibn al-Khatab, the second Muslim caliphate, usurped power from Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb, the cousin of the 7th century Prophet Muhammad and Shiism's most revered saint.

    Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, said recently that Saudis make up nearly half of all foreign security detainees held in Iraq. They number hundreds, he said following a visit to Saudi Arabia, where hardline Sunni clerics have been branding Shiites heretics and calling for the destruction of Shiite shrines in Iraq.

    But any links between the soccer game and Iraq's Shiite-Sunni violence remained largely tenuous, with national pride, joy and hope the overwhelming sentiments.

    But amid all the jubilation came reality checks and a reminder of what divides Iraqis.

    In Tikrit north of Baghdad, where hundreds celebrated on the streets, Salih Jabr Jassim, a 60-year-old pensioner, pointed to the U.S. presence in Iraq as the cause of the country's woes, a conviction many Iraqis subscribe to, but not their government.

    "This is a victory for Iraqi people. But our bigger joy awaits us when the occupation (U.S.) forces withdraw and we are rid of those who disrupted our national unity," he said.

    In Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, 31-year-old teacher Mohammed Hussein, predicted that Sunday's joy would be short-lived.

    "The Iraqi team has brought joy and victory," he said. "We are happy, but this will not last long because the politicians will bring us back to disputes and sadness tomorrow."