Moment of victory for weary Iraqis

When Iraq won the Asian Cup finals Sunday, celebrations erupted.

Celebratory gunfire rang out across Baghdad after Iraq's national soccer team delivered another inspirational victory Sunday, this time winning its first-ever Asian Cup with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.

The "Lions of Mesopotamia" dominated the final against heavily favored Saudi Arabia and emerged victorious thanks to a 71st-minute header by captain Younis Mahmoud that will likely serve as the stuff of legend.

The win was an extraordinary triumph for a team whose players straddle this nation's violent ethnic divides. The team reminded Iraqis of an often faint and fading hope: the potential of a unified nation. The victory offered a small example of what can be accomplished when Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds work together. Iraqis now wonder, can their leaders draw from this example and build on it?

"Eleven players united Iraq, something that 275 members of parliament and 15 political parties in power have been unable to do. The politicians have just caused us pain," says Hassan Hussein Abboud from Amel, one of the capital's most violent areas and a scene of frequent sectarian killings.

$10,000 for each player

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office announced that each player on the Iraqi team would receive $10,000, and revelers poured into the streets in defiance of orders from authorities while mosques broadcast calls for the shooting to stop.

Security forces, meanwhile, enforced a vehicle ban in an effort to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens celebrating Iraq's progress to the final.

The team's 11 players and their coach Brazilian Jorvan Vieira all tied black bands to their arms in a sign of solidarity with the more than 50 fans killed on Wednesday when two suicide car bombers struck the crowds in Baghdad celebrating Iraq's qualification to the finals.

Tears of joy

In one section of Baghdad's densely packed, poor and mainly Shiite Sadr City district many residents were in tears.

Hayat Jabr handed out cakes and ice-cold drinks to her neighbors for the occasion as the sound of celebratory gun fire, an Iraqi tradition, could be heard all around.

In Amel, residents poured out on the streets dancing and waving Iraqi flags.

The distant sound of an explosion did not seem to affect anyone.

The soccer team is made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and because of the security situation in Baghdad, it trains in the relatively peaceful northern Kurdistan region or outside Iraq altogether.

The theme of politics and soccer has been recurring over the past few weeks in editorials and television programs as the Iraqi team went from one win to another, playing against all odds to finally clinch a cup for the first time ever in any soccer tournament.

"The soccer ball united the nation, let the politicians learn something," said a program presenter on Iraqiya, the state television station.

The station, which is accused by many Sunnis of being the voice of the Shiite-led government, for the sake of unity cut a scene in which a Shiite man held up a poster of revered Shiite Imam Hussein and said that the soccer team won because the "Imams were looking over us."

Keeping sectarianism at bay

Thamer al-Ameri, an independent politician, said it's important not to confuse emotions and ideology in events like this.

"Iraqis have proven they are one in their emotions, feelings and spontaneous reactions," he said. "But the problem is with ideology and beliefs."

He said Iraq's feuding politicians, who are now plunged in the deepest crisis of governance at the moment since the start of the war, should put their differences aside and try to harness this unity of emotions to try to reunite the nation.

"It's a wish, but it's more fantasy than reality," he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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