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Iraqis see success in soccer team's Olympic performance

BAGHDAD, Iraq—For an hour and a half Friday night there was no occupation, no insurgency and no struggle to survive in a country weary of violence.

There was only soccer and a chance for a war-torn nation and its team of improbable heroes to accomplish a remarkable feat: bringing home an Olympic medal for the first time in 44 years and the second in the nation's history.

"We have all these difficulties these days in our lives, but our team did its best and reached the Olympics," said Ali Abdul Jabbar, 26, an appliance salesman. "This is a great thing."

Along with about 125 Iraqis who packed a smoke-filled cafe in a Baghdad hotel to watch Iraq take on Italy, Jabbar had high hopes that the night would bring an even greater reward: a bronze medal.

Even when Italy scored what would be the night's only goal eight minutes into the 93-minute match, the all-male crowd lost none of its enthusiasm.

"I'm very anxious," Jabbar said, puffing on an Iraqi water pipe stoked with sweet-smelling tobacco. "I'm reacting with them as if I'm playing with them."

Eyes remained riveted to seven wall-mounted television sets. Voices rose and fell with the game's pace and the ball's proximity to Italy's goal. Men leaped to their feat when victory seemed near, then thrust their hands into the air in exasperation when the ball veered wide.

"Come on!" yelled some as an opportunity to score slipped past.

"That was a good pass!" said others, offering encouragement.

More than a few fans weighed in with their assessments of the team's strategy. Iraq's best chance would be to concentrate on the attack, they said.

"Until this minute, the team is playing fine," said shopkeeper Haider Majid, 22. "But the coach is keeping the most important players on the bench. They should be on the field."

By the end of the first half, Iraq still hadn't scored. Outside the hotel in the balmy night air, a half-dozen Iraqi police officers and private security guards watching over the hotel's gate also kept a vigil over the game.

"God willing, the second half will be for Iraq," said policeman Mazin Alea, 23, as he and other guards sat in a semicircle around a yellow-tinted television, their AK-47 rifles beside them.

In one sense, Iraq had nothing to lose.

"Surely, we will celebrate even if they lose this last game because they've done their best," said Hassan Bahriya, of Iraq's Olympic committee, early Friday before the game began. "It's a big moment for all Iraqis."

Even after failing to win a gold or silver medal earlier this week, it was amazing enough to many Iraqis that a team could emerge from such difficult circumstances and take on the best competition the world had to offer.

"Now, the whole of Iraq is watching this game," said Alea, the policeman. "Even fourth place, which is fourth place in the world, is a good thing."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-OLYMPICS

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