Soccer win gives Iraqis relief from despair
By Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Iraqis from the Shiite south to the Kurdish-dominated north poured into the usually treacherous streets Sunday to celebrate a rare moment of joy and unity when the national team won Asia’s most prestigious soccer tournament.
The revelers spanning the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions danced, sang and waved flags and posters of the team after Iraq beat three-time champion Saudi Arabia 1-0 to take the Asian Cup.
Chants of “Long live Iraq” and “Baghdad is victorious” rang out across the country as Iraqis basked in national pride. Some of the revelers — mostly men — took their shirts off to display the red, white and black colors of the Iraqi flag painted on their chests.
Wrapped in flags
Reporters of the state Iraqiya television wrapped themselves with the national flag as they interviewed people celebrating in the streets. Some joined in the chanting.
Within seconds of the final whistle, celebratory gunfire echoed across 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 such as those that killed at least 50 and wounded dozens in Baghdad during celebrations of Iraq’s semifinal win over South Korea on Wednesday.
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 had banned vehicles in and around the capital from shortly before the game began until early Monday to prevent a repeat of last week’s violence.
“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 predominantly Shiite Sadr City district.
‘The Lions’ victory
Sunday’s dramatic win capped a three-week campaign by Iraqi team, nicknamed “The Lions of the Two Rivers.” Iraqis were captivated 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 team 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 the city of Sulaimaniyah in the Kurdish north, where secessionist sentiment has been on the rise.
“This team is for everyone,” Khalid said, as revelers around him waved Iraqi and Kurdish flags and chanted “Baghdad is victorious” in Arabic instead of their native Kurdish language.
The mixed makeup of the winning national team was interpreted by many Iraqis as proof that politicians are more concerned with their narrow sectarian agendas than national interest, thus preventing reconciliation among rival factions.
A uniting event
“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 people 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.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to use the team’s success to shore up support for his embattled government.
During Sunday’s final, state television reported 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.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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