An upset victory produces a rare moment of unity in Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2007 

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The players wore black armbands to remember the victims of a car bombing. The electricity went out, as usual, at the most exciting moments of the match. Baghdad was under a citywide curfew for fear of insurgent attacks on sports fans.

And all of that was forgotten the instant the Iraqi national soccer team won its first Asian Cup championship Sunday in a fairytale 1-0 upset of heavily favored Saudi Arabia. As the Iraqi players wept and danced with joy on a soccer pitch in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, their countrymen rejoiced at perhaps the rarest of Iraqi experiences: a happy ending.

"Our gallant youths fulfilled their vows to their country and people," said Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in a televised speech after the game. "They were able to portray Iraq beautifully, in all its shades, and bring a smile of hope to their people. They are a stark contrast to those who lurk in dark corners to plant death and sorrow among the innocent."

Patriotic music filled the airwaves. Children with their faces painted red, black and green, the colors of the Iraqi flag, pelted their neighbors with candies. Families made plans to slaughter sheep or chickens for feasts. Vendors sold out of the T-shirt that emphasizes unity over sectarianism with the slogan, "I am Iraqi."

Even the country's politicians managed to set aside their squabbles as they crammed onto sofas to watch in the living room of Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh's elegant villa in the capital's Green Zone compound. There were enough cabinet ministers to make a quorum, and a handful of senior American and British diplomats joined them in cheering on the home team.

Then, just a few minutes into the game, the power went off. The crowd, dapper in business suits and ties, groaned in the manner of less-privileged Iraqis for whom such power cuts are an everyday occurrence.

"This is the government!" said Saleh, jokingly, as he waved his arms in mock exasperation.

"Tomorrow, we'll bring the minister of electricity to parliament and interrogate him!" cracked an Iraqi legislator.

The Iraqis played aggressively but missed many scoring opportunities. About 71 minutes into the game, star forward Hawar Mullah Mohammed arched the ball on a corner kick, and captain Younis Mahmoud slammed a header past the goalkeeper into the back of the Saudi goal. The team's Brazilian coach grabbed the front of his shirt, imploring the Iraqis to "play with your heart." They went on to deny Saudi Arabia an unprecedented fourth Asian Cup title.

"I will bow to the ground and kiss the feet of those who brought us the Asian Cup," read one of hundreds of text messages posted on the crawl of a local TV channel.

In marshy southern villages, mountainous northern towns and the battle-scarred neighborhoods of the capital, elated Iraqis pumped bullets into the air in defiance of government and clerical bans on celebratory gunfire.

In Baghdad, a few daring celebrants broke the curfew and piled into beat-up cars to cruise until the police stopped them. Others skirted the 14-hour ban on vehicles by roaming the streets on bicycles and scooters festooned with huge banners.

In many homes, Iraqis gasped as their TV sets showed scenes that were unimaginable only a month ago: Kurds raised the Iraqi flag in their mostly autonomous northern region, men stripped off their shirts and ran half-naked in southern holy cities, women who usually stay indoors for protection stayed out past sunset.

Whether because of the curfew's restrictions or the stepped-up vigilance by security forces, no major bombings were reported after the match. Stray bullets killed at least two people and injured more than 40, police said.

"People are chanting and shouting," said Haider Mahmoud, 31, a resident of the southern city of Kut. "I heard them yelling, 'No, no to terrorism! Let them blow up, but we will continue celebrating!"

"I can't describe my feelings because I've never had such a great feeling," said Qusai Hadi, 31, from Basra, a largely Shiite Muslim city in southern Iraq. "Those players planted happiness in every Iraqi's heart. I wish I could kiss them, one by one . . . . I hope this happiness lasts forever."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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