Iraq's soccer team sparked widespread jubilation across the country on January 15 when Ahmad Khalil's last-gasp goal
gave them victory over Bahrain in the semifinals of the Gulf Cup
Now only the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) stands between "The Lions of Mesopotamia" and their first major international trophy since they surprised the world by winning the Asian Cup in 2007.
In a proud soccer country that has long been starved of success, it's no surprise that many Iraqis poured onto the streets of cities across the country in spontaneous celebration.
These joyous scenes were marred, however, because many indulged in the practice of firing guns into the air to express their elation.
Tragically, it appears that several people were accidentally killed and dozens injured as a result of being hit by stray bullets falling from the sky.
“We have received many dead and wounded people since the end of the match, some of them are women and children,” said a source at a hospital in Basra, who refused to reveal his name.
“This is crazy. Those people are crazy, as if the number of people who died or were wounded in Iraq till now was not enough,” he added.
Now, authorities are worried that if Iraq triumphs against the U.A.E. in the Gulf Cup final on January 18, it will precipitate further deaths or injuries.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the ministry was calling on people "to abstain from shooting in the air after the match."
"We hope they will comply and listen to these calls,” he said.
Nevertheless Maan admitted that security forces were not able to control every incident even though many have been detained and others fined for illegally firing guns into the air.
He called on religious leaders and civil society to encourage people to refrain from celebratory gunfire, a practice he described as “uncivilized.”
Deeply Entrenched Tradition
There are many who fear Maan's appeal will fall on deaf ears, however, as the use of firearms in public celebrations is an entrenched tradition in many parts of Iraq.
According to sociologist Dhia al-Jassani, it's a custom that is deeply rooted in rural parts of the country.
“People are used to receiving pilgrims returning from Mecca with gunshots,” he told Radio Free Iraq, adding that gunfire was also part of the customary send-off at funerals.
Al-Jassani noted that that the practice of firing guns into the air later spread to urban areas during the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Saddam's regime militarized society," he said. "He made people feel proud of having guns at home.”
Al-Jassani also believes that the fragile security situation in Iraq has since exacerbated this phenomenon.
People tend to show others that they have guns and are able to defend themselves, he said, which is why they use occasions such as weddings or a big soccer victory to show off their firearms.
Consequently, should Iraq triumph against the U.A.E. in the Gulf Cup, there is a distinct possibility that the inevitable celebrations will also be tainted by needless tragedy.
-- Abo Al Hab Maysoon