Source AP ©

Soccer brings Sunni and Shiite Iraqis together

One Sunni man drove 30 minutes through the dangerous streets of Baghdad to watch the soccer game with his Shiite friends whom he hadn't seen in months.

A 40-year-old Shiite couldn't contain his tears when he joined three Sunni friends who used to play on a local soccer team with him in a local coffee shop to watch Iraq face off against Vietnam in the Asian Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.

They weren't disappointed as Iraq won 2-0 to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1976, causing hundreds of people from across the sectarian divide to overcome fears of violence and take to the streets in a spontaneous celebration.

Men of all ages waved Iraqi flags and did a jig in the streets, while others jumped on top of cars and rode around, horns honking.

On a negative note, five people, including two children, were killed and 25 were wounded in celebratory gunfire, according to health officials in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Iraqis said Sunday the jubilation over the victory - albeit brief - showed they can come together despite the past years of spiraling violence between Sunnis and Shiites that has made Baghdad a maze of concrete barriers and largely confined people to their own neighborhoods.

Many expressed regret that Iraqi political factions couldn't emulate the soccer team, as the Shiite-dominated government's failure to bring minority Sunnis into the mainstream has been blamed for fueling the insurgency and retaliatory violence.

"None of our politicians could bring us under this flag like our national soccer team did. I wish that politicians could take a lesson from our team, which is made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who worked together regardless of their backgrounds and won," Abdul-Rahman Abdul-Hassan said.

Abdul-Hassan, a 40-year-old Shiite education ministry worker who lives in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah, joined three Sunni friends watching the game in a coffee shop. He said it was the first time he had seen his former soccer teammates in some two years because they had fled the predominantly Shiite area due to the sectarian tensions.

"Ahmed, Naji and Abdul-Karim were there with us," the father of three said, giving only the first names of his friends. "We kissed and hugged each other and recalled our days when we were part of the local soccer team in Kazimiyah and how we were playing in an organized fashion regardless of our religious and ethnic affiliations."

Sami Talib, a 54-year-old retired teacher who is a Shiite living in western Baghdad, agreed.

"The Iraqi soccer team made us happy despite all of our deep sorrow," he said. "The win unified Iraqis and uncovered their real core ... I hope our politicians do the same and put aside their political disputes to win also and achieve the security and stability in our beloved country."

Salim Alwan, a 30-year-old Sunni, drove about half an hour to the predominantly Shiite Zafaraniyah area to watch the game with Shiite friends whom he hadn't seen for half a year, having only spoken with them on the phone because of the sectarian violence.

On Saturday, Alwan said, the talk was only about soccer.

"We decided not to talk about politics and how politicians are driving this country to a civil war in order not to disturb our mood and we only talked about our national team," he said. "I spent the night there and then came back today after they accompanied me with their car for my safety."

Marwan Ahmed, a 23-year-old Sunni tailor in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, called Saturday "the most beautiful day in Iraq over the past four years."

He said people from a variety of religious backgrounds gathered in a casino to watch the game and the revelry went well past midnight, which he pointed out "was very rare in Basra."

"All the people at the casino congratulated each other, even those who didn't know each other. I felt like this team helped clean our hearts from hatred as all were thinking only of Iraq and nothing else."

Iraqi officials _ under heavy U.S. pressure to agree on draft legislation aimed at promoting national reconciliation and stemming support for the insurgency _ agreed to the principle.

"Political interests created this problem ... the sport gives us a signal or rings the bell to say this is the real Iraq," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

But others warned it was not so easy after months of fighting that has devastated the country.

"The politicians should learn from and see the joy on the Iraqi streets when our soccer team won ... and all of us realized the national unity of Iraqis," said Salim Abdullah of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. "But the difficult question is whether the Iraqi politicians can play as one team, regardless of results?"

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