Iraqi passions turn to soccer – for 90 minutes

On Sunday, Iraqis focused on their country's struggle on a soccer field in Dubai instead of the war on the streets.

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    Standing room only: Despite the ongoing offensive against Shiite militants, Iraqis turned out to watch Iraq take on Qatar in an Asian 2010 World Cup qualifying match on TV screens at Hajji Raad’s teahouse in Amara.
    Sam Dagher
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Iraqis stopped paying attention to war for a little while Sunday. Instead, they turned to the country's other preoccupation – soccer.

And here in Amara, where the government mounted a major offensive against Shiite militants last week, men and boys clamored for views of the televisions at riverfront cafes. And as the sun was fading, they began cheering on their countrymen who were fighting to advance in Asian 2010 World Cup qualifying.

Even Iraqi soldiers from Baghdad and other provinces took a break from chasing Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen or looking for weapon caches.

In the end, Qatar advanced and won 1-0. But for at least 90 minutes it wasn't war that drove Iraqi passions, it was the battle over a ball on a Dubai soccer field.

Before the game, people started taking front-row seats. Songs cheering the national blared from giant speakers.

Crowds swelled as the game started. At the South Casino (cafes here are inexplicably called casinos, although there is no gambling or drinking), soldiers in camouflage lounged on chairs smoking water pipes and eating pumpkinseed. Others crowded nearby at a food stand selling grilled kabobs.

As the game progressed without an Iraqi goal, the crowds at the next-door Najmawi Casino grew restless. When the ball came anywhere near the goalpost, they jumped, whistled, and cheered. All were false alarms. But suddenly hope rose. They glimpsed the team's star, Younis Ahmed, stretching on the sidelines. But because of an injury he never made it onto the field.

At Hajji Raad's teahouse there was nail-biting aplenty. Spectators took nervous gulps of sugary pitch-black tea as the second half brought no reprieve for the Iraqi fans.

"We just want peace, security, and plenty. We just want to eat bread and fill up our stomachs," says Hajji Raad, when asked to comment on the military operation, so far relatively quiet, that has brought in thousands of Iraqi troops to his city backed by the US military.

Suddenly, a patron walked out in anger. Iraqi player Nashaat Akram shot the ball, nearly into the goalpost.

"That was an Iraqi Scud missile, but no luck," shouted the commentator on Iraqiya TV, the state-owned station broadcasting the game.

A ticker on the screen urged residents "not to shoot your guns in the air in the event the Iraqi team wins the game because of the ongoing military operation."

Celebrating soccer wins with gunfire is a well-established – and sometimes lethal – Iraqi tradition. When Iraq beat China last week, more than two dozen people were injured, at least one fatally.

But the chances of this happening diminish as Qatar scored a goal.

At South Casino, the crowds went wild in the final minutes. Some took off their shirts and wave them in the air; others picked up chairs and tossed them around.

"Ali with you, Ali," they screamed in reference to the revered Shiite Imam Ali.

Hopes have risen that Iraqis may score an equalizer and perhaps prolong the game if the team is awarded a free shot because of a Qatar penalty. But hope is soon dashed. The referee declined to award the shot to the Iraqis. Qatar celebrated.

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