From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Iraqis Bask in Rare Joy After Soccer Win
Iraqis Rejoice Over Prestigious Soccer Victory, a Temporary Triumph
Over Despair

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.

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

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.

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.

“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.

Al-Maliki later issued a statement on the team’s win in flowery

“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. You deserve all our love and
respect,” it said.

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 on a pass from Mulla Mohammed, the
team’s only Kurdish player.

Even Iraq’s squabbling political factions set aside their disputes, if
only temporarily.

The largest Sunni Arab bloc said it would delay a planned response in
its war of words with the Shiite-dominated government to avoid
poisoning the joyous atmosphere.

The Accordance Front has suspended its membership in al-Maliki’s
government and threatened to quit altogether this week if the prime
minister does not meet certain demands. The government said the move
amounted to blackmail and that the Sunni bloc had helped create some
of the very policies it now criticized.

Accordance Front spokesman Salim Abdullah said his group would issue a
reply on Monday “because we don’t want anything to spoil the day’s joy
for the people of Iraq.”

Its demands include a pardon for security detainees not charged with
specific crimes, a firm commitment by the government to uphold human
rights, the disbanding of militias and the inclusion of all parties as
the government deals with Iraq’s chaotic security environment.

Most of the team’s other players are Shiites, and Shiites back home
had lightheartedly 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, a cousin of the 7th century
Prophet Muhammad and Shiism’s most revered saint.

But any links between the soccer game and Iraq’s sectarian violence
Sunday remained largely tenuous, with national pride, joy and hope the
overwhelming sentiments.

In northern Iraq, gunmen opened fire on shoppers in a Shiite Turkomen
village near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing seven people and
wounding six, police said.

Two U.S. soldiers also were killed one by small-arms fire north of
Baghdad and another in fighting in an eastern section of the capital,
the military said.

In Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, 31-year-old teacher
Mohammed Hussein said 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.”

{Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in
Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.}
Gunfire Erupts After Iraq Soccer Win
By BUSHRA JUHI  /  07.29.07

BAGHDAD – Defying orders from authorities, revelers fired celebratory
gunshots and poured into the streets after Iraq beat Saudi Arabia to
clinch its first Asian Cup soccer championship on Sunday.

Mosques broadcast calls to stop the shootings, which killed at least
four people. Security forces enforced a vehicle ban in an effort to
prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens celebrating Iraq’s
progress to the finals Wednesday.

Iraqis welcomed the victory as a chance to show the world they can
come together and expressed frustration that their politicians
couldn’t do the same.

“Those heroes have shown the real Iraq. They have done something
useful for the people as opposed to the politicians and lawmakers who
are stealing or killing each other,” said Sabah Shaiyal, a 43-year-old
policeman in Baghdad. “The players have made us proud, not the greedy
politicians. Once again, our national team has shown that there is
only one, united Iraq.”

The Iraqi team, known as the “Lions of the Two Rivers” beat three-time
champions Saudi Arabia 1-0 in its first appearance in the Asian Cup

The jubilation over the victorious run of the team has given Iraqis a
rare respite from the daily sectarian attacks, with men of all ages
cheering and dancing in the streets after each win.

But extremists seemed just as determined to destroy national pride and
unity. Two car bombs tore through crowds of revelers in two Baghdad
neighborhoods, killing 50 people after Wednesday’s semifinal victory
over South Korea.

An Iraqi military official said police had foiled a suicide car bomber
on Sunday by opening fire as the attacker took aim at a crowd in
southwestern Baghdad. The driver was killed but no other casualties
were reported, according to the official, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.

Elsewhere, the mood was festive. In Baghdad, soccer fans danced and
waved Iraqi flags in the streets, while women handed out sweets.
People sprayed confetti from cans over the heads of jubilant crowds in
the southern city of Basra.

“This winning has united the Iraqis and nobody has been this since a
long time,” said Yassir Mohammed, a 35-year-old Sunni from western
Baghdad, as the sounds of gunshots popped around him.

Hundreds of people also gathered in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah,
160 miles northeast of Baghdad, chanting “Baghdad is victorious.”
Revelers drove their cars through the streets, honking horns and
waving Kurdish and Iraqi flags in a show of unity.

Iraqi politicians were quick to try to take advantage of the win.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office issued a statement
congratulating the team and said each member would receive $10,000 for
their achievements. The Shiite leader’s office said earlier that it
had planned to send a Cabinet delegation to the game, but had problems
getting overflight permissions from countries it would have to cross
en route to Indonesia.

The statement did not single out any countries or give more details.

At least four people were killed and 17 wounded by the shooting that
broke out after Sunday’s game, according to initial reports by police
and hospital officials.

Police in the predominantly Shiite southern city of Nasiriyah reported
at least nine people, including three children, wounded by the
gunfire. All the officials declined to be identified because they were
not supposed to speak to the media.

The vehicle ban – which began about a half hour before the game
started and was to last through Monday morning – covered everything
from cars and trucks to bicycles, motorcycles and carts. The ban was
issued to keep “terrorists, Sunni extremists and criminals from
targeting the joy of the people over the achievements of the Iraqi
national team,” Iraqi military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said in an
announcement broadcast on state television.

The U.S. military said it would position troops as necessary to
maintain security nationwide.

The celebratory gunfire ignored pleas from both government and
religious authorities after shots killed at least seven people
following previous victories. The government had warned that anybody
firing weapons in the air Sunday would be arrested.

“We call upon people to stick to two important recommendations,”
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said at a
news conference.

“People should keep their celebrations within their own areas while
security forces step up measures at the entry points to the areas,” he
said. “Anybody caught shooting will be arrested and tried according to
the Iraqi civil law.”

Al-Moussawi said that would include Iraqi security forces.

“Security forces are allowed to participate in the celebrations but
without shooting into the air, otherwise they will face judicial
measures,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said
celebratory gunfire was religiously prohibited to protect lives and
spare people from being terrified, according to an official at his
headquarters in the city of Najaf. The official spoke on condition of
anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

In unrelated violence Sunday, 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-Qaida in Iraq, but the
city has seen rising ethnic tensions amid disputes over Kurdish calls
to incorporate it into their autonomous region.

Two U.S. soldiers also were killed – one by small-arms fire north of
Baghdad and another in fighting in an eastern section of the capital,
the military said.

A bomb also struck a minibus in eastern Baghdad, killing one passenger
and wounding four, and a policeman was shot to death on his way to
work southeast of the capital, police said.

Separately, 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.

{Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub in
Baghdad and Chris Brummitt in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this

Soccer Lions of Mesopotamia
Simon Maxwell Apter  /  July 31, 2007

If the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future got together for
a reunion, they probably wouldn’t play soccer. Still, as Iraq marched
through the bracket of the Asian Cup soccer tournament in July, one
had to wonder. Iraq 2, Vietnam 0 in the quarterfinals; Iraq 4, South
Korea 3, on penalties in the semis after 120 minutes of scoreless
soccer; and Iraq 1, Saudi Arabia 0 in the final. A betting man might
pick Riyadh as the capital of our next unwinnable war.

Prior to 2003, Iraqi soccer players lived in fear of the bastinado, a
torture device especially well-suited for punishing players who had
humiliated themselves and their nation on the field of play. What
better way, after all, to reprimand a soccer player than by savagely
lashing the soles of his feet with a cane, a whip, a wooden stick? As
any sadist knows, the many nerve endings and tiny tendons and bones at
the bottoms of one’s feet make the beatings especially cruel; the
bastinado was a preferred technique among Khmer Rouge interrogators,
and it was the preferred technique of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and,
until the American invasion, chairman of Iraq’s Olympic Committee.
Soccer was Uday’s favorite sport, and he took the national team’s
performance quite personally and seriously.

Without a serious sustained presence in our sporting calendar (Let me
know when networks scramble over themselves to bid for MLS broadcast
rights), Americans have come to understand and imagine world soccer
anecdotally, which is to say we imagine it as the sum of the craziest
soccer-related events we hear about. In 1994, after Colombian defender
Andres Escobar poked a ball into his own goal against the US in the
World Cup, he was murdered by an irate fan in Medellin; we were
rightly horrified. Earlier this year, amidst spiraling violence
between fractious ultras–rabid supporters of Italian club teams–
several matches had to be played in empty stadiums; we were rightly
amused. And, of course, in overtime of last year’s World Cup final in
Berlin, Zinedine Zidane, arguably the world’s best player at the time,
head-butted himself right out of the most pivotal moment of his
sporting career; and we were rightly puzzled. (God knows if foreign
observers now think that all American football players are masochistic
dogfight promoters, but we, as a sporting society, would deserve it in
light of the picture of international soccer we’ve created for
ourselves.) The incidents described are outliers, but they’re the ones
that stick in our minds; they’re the ones we remember when we see a
soccer ball.

We’ve come to see the Iraq war in much the same way, as a series of
connected anecdotes. A supporter points to a toppled statue, a purple
finger, an assassinated terrorist; a detractor sees a beheaded
contractor, a ceaseless stream of casualties, a schismatic parliament
on summer vacation. We see Iraq as we choose which dots to connect.
And now we’re presented with the story of the Iraqi national soccer
team, a symbol of a nation triumphant and denuded at the same time, a
bloody shirt both George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi could grab hold of
to rally the base.

Iraq is now the king of Asian soccer. Electricity flickers on and off
in Baghdad; oil pipelines lay sabotaged and dormant in Basra; and
civilians blow each other up in Mosul, but Assood al Rafidain–the
Lions of Mesopotamia–stand alone as 2007 Asian Cup champions, twenty-
three newly-minted ambassadors of the best soccer the world’s largest
continent has to offer. In 2009, Iraq will join the likes of Brazil
and Italy at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, the global
tournament that pits continental champions against each other one year
before the World Cup. Between them, Brazil and Italy have won nine
World Cups; Iraq has participated in exactly one, in 1986, a three-
loss, one-goal performance in Mexico superseded in futility only by
Canada, who managed not to score at all in its own trio of losses.

The United States, recent winners of North America’s Gold Cup, will
also compete at the Confederations Cup, setting up a possible date
with the Lions that, if General David Petraeus is afforded his
recently-divulged timetable, could dovetail quite nicely with the
beginning of the end of our occupation of their country. For the
eleven Iraqis on the field, it could be a bittersweet match-up.

Iraq’s success in soccer is, perhaps, one of the few concrete triumphs
to have come out of the quagmire. Call it a beneficent side effect.
The WMDs were, indeed, not there, but the bastinado was, awaiting
whomever Uday capriciously felt had embarrassed the country with a sub-
par performance. Running possibly the only Ministry of Sport complete
with a torture chamber and jail, Uday made Bob Knight look like
Francis of Assisi. “We played every match with the fear of punishment,
an intense psychological pressure,” Mowafak Nuri, a retired soccer
player, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2003, four months after
Uday and his brother, Qusay, were killed by the 101st Airborne
Division in Mosul. “[Uday] destroyed the performances of the national

The team’s revitalization since then has been extraordinary–and
unavoidably draped in politics. Sunday’s win over the Saudis in
Jakarta capped a remarkable three-year run for Iraqi soccer. A scrappy
under-23 Iraqi side captured fourth place at the ’04 Olympics after
losing, 1-0, to Italy in an emotional bronze medal match played just
one day after Sunni militants murdered Enzo Baldoni, an Italian
journalist working in Najaf. Both teams wore black armbands in honor
of the slain freelancer in a natural gesture of mourning and
solidarity, but, unfortunately, little overt notice was given to
however many Iraqis the 3,200 Italian soldiers in the Coalition of the
Willing had killed theretofore in the war; there probably weren’t
enough armbands. After President Bush attempted to trade on the team’s
success in a re-election advertisement, Iraqi players protested.
Though Bush’s invasion had freed Iraqi players from Uday Hussein,
something far more complicated than gratitude bubbled to the surface.
“My problems are not with the American people,” coach Adnan Hamad told
Sports Illustrated while in Athens. “They are with what America has
done in Iraq: destroy everything. The American army has killed so many
people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium
and there are shootings on the road?”

This year’s Iraqi team again wore black on the field. In Baghdad
following last week’s semifinal win, more than fifty people died from
suicide bombings. The violence barely took a break after the
championship. President Bush, perhaps having learned a lesson at the
Olympics, thus far has remained quiet about the soccer news. Team
captain Younis Mahmoud, though, is speaking from the winner’s
platform. “I want America to go out,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, or
the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t
invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon.”

Iraq’s football adventure in Southeast Asia was probably made possible
by the American removal of Saddam and Uday, another bullet point for
war supporters to use to balance out that lack of WMDs. The Asian Cup
has delivered real victory to millions of Iraqis; it’s a hopeful
anecdote to point to, a miracle moment brought to you by Uncle Sam.
Still, as one in seven Iraqis flees his newly crowned nation, it’s
hard not to see the American adventure in Iraq as, at least for the
occupied state, just another kind of bastinado.

Soccer: Win or lose, Iraqi team is in a perilous position
By Rob Hughes  /  July 27, 2007

Iraqi soccer players are in a no-win situation like no other. They
will strive to beat Saudi Arabia for the Asian Cup in Jakarta on
Sunday evening. And should they win, it will release another bout of
mass revelry back home and possibly more deaths on the streets of
Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere.

We might try, but surely not come close, to putting ourselves in the
shoes of the Iraqi team heroes of the past week, among them the
goalkeeper, Noor Sabri Abbas, and midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammad.

“We are struggling inside Iraq, and we have to struggle on the field,”
news agencies quoted Noor as saying after the semifinal victory on
Wednesday night. “This is a very modest thing we can give to our

He paused, paled, and added: “Four days before we came to start this
tournament, my wife’s brother died. My teammate Hawar Mohammad lost
his stepmother.”

He meant lost to war.

Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian who was hired to knit together an Iraqi
squad of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds put together barely two months ago,
contradicted himself this weekend. Earlier he had claimed there were
no factions, no rifts within his dressing room. Now he admits that
there had been, of course, bad relations.

“We had six weeks to unite them,” Vieira told news agencies. “The
players have problems in their lives, they are not normal footballers.
We are chasing a victory that would be very, very special for the
players, and the people. I had to get them to like each other and not
bring personal or political difference here.

“We could not have them at war with each other.”

The evidence of their unity is their Sunday appearance in the final,
the first that Iraq has reached in Asian Cup history.

These are relatively young men. Noor is 23, Hawar, 25. They would not
be human if they did not hope, as some of the Saudis openly do, that
this weekend will be a springboard to a life among the rich
acquisitive clubs of Europe.

Sports in Europe is not without its traumas: The stench of drugs
around the Tour de France, the shrug of motor racing’s authority when
confronted with accusations that a leading team stole the design
secrets of another are destabilizing stains on their reputations.

Yet, how do you attempt to compare sad win-at-all-costs cheating to
the ramifications of the match Sunday in Jakarta’s immense sports

On the evidence of last Sunday, and even worse Wednesday, soccer fans
will die exercising their spontaneous joy if Iraq wins.

That is a terrible, almost unimaginable burden to lay on players. Win,
and the extremists will target the very fact that sport can
momentarily unite Iraqis. Lose, and there is the possibility that, on
this night anyway, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will neither celebrate
nor die.

This is a game? How do we accept Iraq’s victory over South Korea in
the semifinal of the Asian Cup – representing a continent that covers
more than half the world’s land mass – being an excuse for bombers who
on Wednesday massacred more than 50 people sharing a fleeting euphoria

It was naïve of Iraq’s heads of state last Sunday to praise the team
as a symbol of national unification. It was rash of Iraq’s military
leaders in Basra to claim to The Times that, because Sunni and Shiite
officers were cheering on the team side by side, Iraq’s violence could
be significantly reduced by the efforts of 11 men on the field.

Not only did two car bombers blow up that hope but police and ministry
officials have now suggested that some of the eight people shot and
killed while Iraqis fired volleys of rifle shots into the air in
celebration very likely were murdered. The carelessness of stray
bullets taking out revelers was used to disguise vendetta killings.

Nothing in sporting history – not the Black September terrorist murder
of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, not the horrible
tragedies of stadium violence, not the El Salvador-Honduras war of
1969, allegedly tied to a volatile soccer match – is greater in scale
than the portents for the match on Sunday.

Yet the match in Jakarta cannot be stopped, nor should it. To abandon
the game would not prevent the killings, in fact it might be an excuse
for more. To turn off the hope, however irrational, in the face of
evil threat would mean that sports is forever more at the mercy of the
guns and bombs.

Even so, this is not in any sense a normal cup final.

It is already a remarkable triumph for Iraq to gather together a squad
of men fit, available and skilled enough to reach a stage their
countrymen have never achieved before.

Saudi Arabia, also coached by a Brazilian, has won the Asian Cup three
times before – in 1984, 1988 and 1996.

It is a serial winner, a seasoned soccer force with the financial
means to prepare for a tournament like this.

And as much as Noor’s goalkeeping heroics saw Iraq through the penalty
shootout against South Korea on Wednesday, he faces a higher caliber
of marksmen in the final.

“Yasser al-Qahtani and Malek Maaz would have no problems playing in
any team in Japan or in Europe,” Helio Cesar dos Anjos, the Brazilian
who coaches the Saudi Arabian team, told news agencies. “I hope they
get recognized for the strikers they are, and I hope they go to Europe
because that is the big advantage that Australia, Japan and South
Korea have.”

The fact that those teams are out of the tournament and that Iraq and
Saudi Arabia are the last teams standing, might contradict the coach’s
words. He, of course, was speaking, as a good mentor might, to raise
the spirits and confidence of his players on the eve of their biggest
night together.

It is almost irrelevant to report that the Saudi players are
predominantly Sunni Muslims. It is almost possible to avoid what
commentators have been saying throughout this Asian Cup, that Qahtani,
the tournament’s top scorer, is popularly known as “the sniper.”

In a perfect world, these would be idle observations that have no
bearing on the match.

If we could reduce it to sports, it would be intriguing to see how the
young Saudis shape up against equally young Iraqis, and say, “May the
best team win.” But the portents of the past deadly week do not allow
us that simple viewpoint.

These are not normal players in normal circumstances, as their
Brazilian trainers agree.

Bombs Kill At Least 26 Celebrating Iraqi Soccer Win

July 25, 2007 — Iraqi police say at least 26 people were killed when
bombs exploded near soccer fans celebrating Iraq’s victory in a soccer

The first blast went off in Baghdad’s western Al-Mansur district,
killing some 10 people and wounding around 60 others.

The second blast in another part of the capital killed at least 16
people and wounded around 60 more.

The victims were among thousands who took to the streets after Iraq’s
national team beat South Korea in a penalty shoot-out to reach the
final of the Asian Cup.