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Friday, July 20, 2007

"Soccor the Uniting Force in Iraq"

The dusty tracts along the Tigris and the littered wastelands in poor neighborhoods are a welter of activity as young men gather for soccer, the one unifier left in this tortured society.

Goal blog: Iraq United

Iraq despite mortars, bombings and shootings that are sometimes aimed at amateur teams in Baghdad and Ramadi in western Iraq, it remains the national game. While the young play, older men and children gather to watch and women who are walking by steal glances from under their long, black veils.

Excitement reached new heights this week when the Iraqi team advanced to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup after beating Australia and tying its matches with Thailand and the sultanate of Oman. The team plays its first quarterfinal game on Saturday against Vietnam.

“During the two hours of game time, I live in another world,” said Nawfal Hameed, an electric appliance shop owner. “I forget about the car bombs and feel human again, and what is more beautiful is that the team includes all sects — they are all Iraqis to us and they make me feel that we are united again.”

Mr. Hameed, now in his 40s, is a soccer fan from his youngest days and remembers going to the stadium to support his favorite team. “We used to go hours ahead of time and take all the food and water we needed,” he said. “We even became good friends with other football fans, friendships that have lasted until now.”

This week one reporter heard a barrage of bullets from the Iraqi Army checkpoint on his street; fearful that a gunfight had started, he whisked his children to the innermost room of the house. After 15 minutes the shooting stopped and he tentatively emerged.

“Iraq won, Iraq won,” one soldier shouted in jubilation. The other replied, “They play the best football,” as he brandished his AK-47 rifle.

For Iraqis the success of the soccer team — a 22-member squad with Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds — evokes the old days, a time before sectarianism began to tear the country apart. It offers a moment of national pride and fosters the hope that the country, like the team, can look beyond its differences.

“The Iraqi team is the only thing that is uniting us now,” said Haiydar Adnan, 29, a Shiite. “When the Iraqi team wins a game, the people in Karkh, who are Sunnis, get happy, the people in Rusafa, who are Shiites, get happy.”

“I hope that the Iraqi politicians would look at these simple football players who managed to unite the Iraqi people and learn from them,” Mr. Adnan said.

Not only does the team bring together ethnic and sectarian groups (under a Brazilian coach), it is also free of the abuse that sports teams suffered under a son of President Saddam Hussein, Uday, who was the head of the soccer federation. That is another encouragement to Iraqis that they can win out of skill, and not out of fear.

“In the past, the Iraqi players used to play because they were afraid of Uday, but now they play out of pride, they play for their country,” Mr. Adnan said.

It is not so easy now to watch the national team at play. In Baghdad, electricity is available for only an hour or two a day, so watching at home, unless the family has access to a generator, is not an option. People used to go to cafes where free tea and soft drinks were handed out by the cafe owners. Now many are afraid to go outdoors.

Abu Hussain, a 52-year-old Shiite, said: “I don’t like football, but I like to watch the Iraqi football team play. I feel proud when I see the beautiful Iraqi flag rising in another country.”

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting.