'Lions' soccer team brings sheer joy to Iraq

People throughout Iraq danced in the streets Wednesday celebrating the 'Lions of Mesopotamia' after they defeated South Korea in a soccer match.

Thousands of Baghdadis poured out onto the streets of the capital on Wednesday, but this time it was not a funeral, a somber religious event, or a protest against anyone or anything.

It was one of the most spectacular moments of pure joy and unity for this bitterly divided nation since the start of the war.

Minutes after Iraq's national team known here as the "Lions of Mesopotamia" clinched victory in a nail-biting and challenging match against South Korea in the semifinals of the Asia Cup, people began streaming out onto the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqi state television broadcast similar scenes of jubilation in the southern city of Basra, the holy Shiite city of Karbala, and the northern city of Mosul.

"We want peace, we want peace," shouted Leila Abed, a middle-aged woman, as tears rolled down her cheeks struggling to hold up a white banner and keeping her black veil on her head.

She stood in the median of the busy main street in Baghdad's central karrada district as a massive street party built up around her.

Traffic was at a standstill as hundreds of people honked the horns of the jampacked cars, minibuses, and pickup trucks. Many started coming out of their vehicles and created several dance circles in the middle of the street chanting: "Long live our heroes. Baghdad, you are victorious."

Some of the men were shirtless and draped themselves in large Iraqi flags. Women ululated in joy. Someone started throwing candy at the crowd in a customary sign of happiness.

"Iraq is wounded, but it's healed. It's a new day!" screamed Salam Hussein. He held up a poster of the soccer team and kissed each player's image one by one.

Even in joy, bullets were not absent. A man in the back seat of a black BMW held out a pistol from the window and fired several shots in the air in what is a national tradition for weddings, funerals, and soccer wins.

But not everyone was celebrating. A suicide bomber blew himself up in crowd of revelers, killing 11, in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour.

Down Karrada's main road and into nearby Jadriyah, a group of students from Baghdad University were dancing in the street waving Iraqi flags.

"This is proof that Iraqis are one and that this despicable sectarianism came to us from outside," said Basim Hamid.

He said he and his friends cried when Iraq won the match as they followed it on the radio. They did not have power to watch it on TV due to chronic electricity shortages.

Even Iraq's feuding politicians, who are now plunged in the deepest crisis of governance since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, joined the party and started calling the state-run television station to congratulate the Iraqi soccer team.

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