Iraqis find common ground – on a soccer field

In a match pitting Iraq against Iran, our reporter wades into the stands to find Sunnis and Shiites united.

The new Iraq that America's "neocons" once dreamed of – undivided by sectarian animosities and proudly looking toward the future – was finally on display at a soccer match.

Flags waved amid a sea of Iraqis Saturday night. A middle-age Shiite shop-owner and the Rolex-wearing Sunni businessman sitting next to him joined the throng in the latest chant of "We'd give our blood so you can live, Iraq."

Hamid Shukri, a doctor from Baghdad, leaned over to me when he realized I'm an American. "Don't worry," he shouted above the din, grinning ear to ear. "There are no terrorists here."

I'm not worried, though not because I'm brave or a fool. Instead "here" is about 200 miles from the Iraqi border, in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

A soccer pitch in a foreign country is one of the few places that Iraqis can now find common ground and divert their attention from the relentless violence back home.

And it's not just the Iraqis who will be seeking solace in soccer this week. The Palestinian territories, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon are also lining up at the West Asian Football Federation Championships here, which is shaping up to be something of a World Cup for weakened – or at least threatened – states.

The Iraqis on Saturday night were making the most of it.

A fetching teenage girl with green stars representing the national flag spray-painted into her long black hair sat with two women in shapeless black abayas and head scarves. They all groaned in unison as Kirkuk-born striker, and national team heartthrob, Younis Mahmoud missed one of Iraq's best chances of the match.

At least 700,000 Iraqi refugees have fled their homeland to this city of 2 million. So, for the Iraqi national soccer team, Amman is what Los Angeles is for Mexico's: Their favorite home away from home.

International soccer matches inside Iraq are of course, for the moment, impossible.

The fans efforts weren't enough to push the shabab, or boys, over the top in a lackluster 0-0 draw with Iran in the opening round of the West Asian Football Federation's championship, but no one really seemed to mind.

They chanted, they beat on drums, they chattered animatedly among themselves during breaks in the action, without seeming to have a care in the world.

But Mr. Shukri, a 31-year-old who grew up in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district, which has become a playground for kidnappers and sectarian death squads in the past two years, frowns briefly when I ask him what caused him to flee the country.

"Let's not talk about that today," he says. "That's not why we're here."

Indeed, the ongoing tournament here is a rare and welcome source of entertainment for the exiled Iraqis. And while they fought a ruinous war with Iran for most of the 1980s, and many Iraqis believe Iran is responsible for at least some violence inside their country, there were no signs of the violent nationalism sometimes seen during matches between European football powers.

Here in Jordan, the Iraqis increasingly feel like unwanted guests, not allowed to work, unable to move on. Returning home would be a death sentence for many, and being accepted as a refugee by the rich countries of the West is an uncertain lottery; the United States will accept only 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year.

But on nights like Saturday, the exiles' shared common plight allows them to set aside whatever sectarian animosities that might linger below the surface and just be Iraqis. "Shiite, Sunni, no one cares here tonight," says Mohammed, who asked that his full name not be used. He is from just outside Baqubah, Iraq, which has been the scene of major sectarian cleansing in the past few years.

But Iraq's next match here is against the Palestinian team on Monday, a game which promises to have strong support for both sides, given the nearly 2 million Palestinian refugees who live here.

The Palestinian players are mostly based in Gaza, 100 miles east as the crow flies from Amman, but also a world away when it comes to peace and security. They couldn't drive to the tournament. Instead, they drove 200 miles west to Cairo, then flew back east to Amman.

But at least they got out of Gaza; the teeming strip has been sealed off by Israel since the Islamist movement Hamas routed the Fatah party in a violent struggle to control Gaza last week. With the Palestinians divided effectively for the moment into two fragments – the Gaza Strip of Hamas and the West Bank of Fatah – they will share similar distractions as their Iraqi opponents on Monday night.

But teams and fans face yet another test of whether they can put aside political and sectarian animosity.

Shortly before the Lebanese team departed for Amman, a car bomb that killed anti-Syrian member of parliament Walid Eido also claimed the lives of two professional soccer players heading home after a club match on June 13. Many Lebanese have since blamed Syria for the murders.

Lebanon's first- round opponent? Syria, of course.

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