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Iraq: Asian Cup Win Powerful Boost For Unity

Iraqis celebrating in the southern city of Al-Basrah on July 29 (AFP) July 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time ever, Iraq has won soccer's Asian Cup, triggering scenes of jubilation around the war-torn country and among Iraqi communities abroad.

In Baghdad, fans filled the streets after the Iraqi national team beat a more experienced Saudi Arabian side 1:0 in the July 29 final in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The unexpected win against the Saudis, long one of the dominant teams in the Asian Cup contest, unleashed pent-up emotions in a country suffering daily sectarian violence. Many people wept openly, hugged each other, sang, and danced.

Message Of Hope

The Iraqi team included players from all major sectors of Iraqi society, Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkomans, working together with a common aim.
"Celebrations took place in all Iraqi cities, and it sends a message to
all the world that they favor unity, that they like their identity as

Their prospects as a team at first appeared so dim that three prospective coaches turned down the offer to train them. The man who finally took on the task was Brazilian Jorvan Vieira, who had only two months in which to work.

Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief, Nabil al-Haidari, says the success they achieved stands as an example of the unity Iraq so desperately needs to forge on the political level.

"Celebrations took place in all Iraqi cities, and it sends a message to all the world that they favor unity, that they like their identity as Iraqis," he said.

Uniting Iraqis

The symbolism of the occasion was not lost on the fans.

One of them was Ali Adnan, an Iraqi now living in Amman, Jordan, who told Reuters: "I congratulate the wounded Iraqi population, and I hope we get more and more victories. I ask God to unify the Sunnis and the Shi'a. There is no difference between us. We are all brothers under this flag and under this team."

In Baghdad, similar sentiments came from Muhammad Muhisin, a Shi'a from the predominantly Shi'ite Karrada neighborhood of the capital.

"The joy yesterday was not just because we have won, but because it has united Iraqis and brushed aside sectarianism," he said. "People started to feel that they are Iraqis and that they are happy about this achievement, which is an achievement for only Iraq."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the win "a lesson in how to triumph over the impossible to realize victory." He described the common joy of Iraqis as "stronger than the hate of the terrorists."

But the victory was not gained without cost. Some 50 people died on July 25 when bomb explosions ripped into fans celebrating Iraq's semi-final win over South Korea. However, security was tightened for the final, and there were no large-scale incidents.

Sadly, at least seven people died from gunshot wounds caused by revelers firing their guns during the celebrations that followed the final.

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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.