Iraqis rally around Olympic soccer team after Qatar win
BAGHDAD (AP) The Iraqi soccer team's overtime win against Qatar, which will send it to the Olympics for the first time in more than a decade, has at least briefly united the fractured country in exultation amid its grinding war against the Islamic State group.
Residents poured into the streets late Saturday and fireworks rang out for hours, occasionally punctuated by bursts of celebratory gunfire. Hundreds of fans, many singing and dancing, massed on the outskirts of Baghdad airport to give the Lions of Mesopotamia a hero's welcome after they qualified for the 2016 games in Brazil.
''It's not only a sports victory,'' said Hayder al-Sadi, a 40-year-old government worker. ''In Iraq, politics and terrorism permeate everything, but football is the only window - the only escape - for the Iraqi people.''
Iraq is well into its second year in the fight against the Islamic State group, which seized nearly a third of the country in a lightning offensive in the summer of 2014. Troops and allied militias have clawed back a handful of cities and towns in recent months, but the country remains deeply divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
As on previous occasions, however, the national soccer team has at least briefly allowed Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to set their disputes aside and revel in the joy of victory.
''Honestly, just goose-bumps, that is all I feel when I think of it,'' said Amar Rasheed Hass, 34, who watched Saturday night's game at a crowded cafe in Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood. ''When they won, all I remember is I hugged this other guy three times, I didn't even know who he was.''
Similar scenes unfolded in 2007, at the height of the country's grisly sectarian violence, when a national team including Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish players won the Asia Cup. That victory was widely hailed as a moment of national unity, but Saturday's victory marks the first time Iraq has qualified for the Olympics since 2004.
''After 12 years, now the Iraqi football team can come back to take part in the Olympics with pride,'' head coach Abdul Ghani Shahad said as he arrived in Baghdad late Saturday.
The players on the national team are local celebrities, but few have been spared the turmoil that has convulsed Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Ayman Hussein, who scored the winning goal in Qatar, has had his life upended by violence twice in the past decade. During the insurgency that followed the 2003 invasion, his father was killed in a car bomb claimed by al-Qaeda. In the summer of 2014, IS swept through his hometown in the northern Kirkuk province, kidnapping his brother and forcing him to flee to Baghdad.
''I'm still dealing with difficult circumstances, but that gives me motivation to make my family, my people and my country proud,'' Hussein told the crowd of cheering fans at the airport.
Sama Kamal, who works for a humanitarian group that helps those displaced by the conflict, says the team's success gives her hope for Iraq.
''The players are from all over the country, all parts of society and they are able to play together and win. I think it teaches acceptance,'' she said. ''You can even see unity in the celebrations, people start to talk to each other and forget all the other issues like security or politics.''
But while the goodwill extended across the country's many divisions, it stopped short at Iraq's widely reviled politicians, who are seen as corrupt and ineffective.
Several political leaders took to social media to congratulate the team, but al-Sadi, the government employee, advised them to log off.
''We reply to comments from these politicians by saying: `Just keep away, this is our team, not yours,''' he said.