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Star-struck, shellshocked Iraq hails soccer heroes from afar

The government tries to get the team to come home to fans, but the players fear crowds might prompt an attack.

August 01, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqis were glued to their television sets Tuesday as their triumphant national soccer team was honored at a glittering ceremony in the United Arab Emirates.

But questions remained over whether the squad would get to savor its first Asian Cup victory at home.

Youth and Sports Minister Jasim Mohammed Jaafar said it was hoped that team members, most of whom live abroad and play for foreign teams, would arrive in Baghdad on Thursday via Jordan. But some on the squad, which usually practices abroad, have expressed concerns about their safety and that of celebrating fans.

Two suicide bombers killed at least 50 people during jubilant street festivities that followed the team's semifinal win over South Korea last week.

Iraqi team captain Younis Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in Sunday's final against Saudi Arabia, said he wished he could share the moment with his people.

"Our objective was to win the cup and we have it, but now our minds are set on where and how we can celebrate in these difficult circumstances," Mahmoud told the Reuters news agency by telephone Monday from Indonesia.

"We wish we could go back and get a reception like other winning teams in open-top buses," said midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed. "But we don't only fear for ourselves, we are also afraid for the safety of the large crowds that may be targeted by terrorists."

The team's surprise win united war-weary Iraqis in a rare outpouring of joy. Thousands took to the streets across the country, waving flags, beating drums and firing guns into the sky. Tight security measures, including a ban on driving, prevented a repeat of last week's bombings. But at least two civilians were killed in clashes with Baghdad police and two more in the celebratory gunfire.

Jaafar said the government was taken by surprise when team members flew to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday at the invitation of the emir, Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum, to attend a ceremony, broadcast on Iraqi television, in which they were showered with cash, praise and song in front of a crowd of cheering Iraqi expatriates.

"We would have wished that the first meeting be with the Iraqi people, because these people showed enthusiasm and sacrificed for this team," he told The Times.

In interviews, however, Iraqi fans said they understood the team's hesitation about returning home.

"Of course it would be great if they could come and celebrate with the masses, but you can't blame them for fearing the consequences both to them and to the ordinary people," said Mehdi Abud, an east Baghdad taxi driver. "Even if the government is ready to provide them with security, what could they do? Stop mortars and Katyushas from falling from the sky? They can't even protect their own Green Zone for God's sake."

Jaafar said he would personally receive the players at Baghdad's international airport with the head of the national Olympic committee, the head of the soccer federation, a representative from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office and a select group of fans.

The team would then be whisked to the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that is home to many government offices, for meetings with Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani.

Jaafar said authorities would leave it up to the players to decide whether they wished to attend celebrations held by the soccer federation and Olympic committee, whose offices are outside the Green Zone. They would spend the night at a hotel inside the zone, and arrangements could also be made for them to see their families or visit Iraq's holy shrines, he said.

"We are concerned about them and we want them to be safe," he said.

Talabani has also invited the team to the Kurdish region in the north, which has fewer security problems than Baghdad, a presidential aide said Tuesday. But the aide said it was unclear whether the team would accept.

Maliki has said the government would give each team member $10,000. Talabani has also promised $10,000 each, with an extra $10,000 for Mahmoud. In addition, properties will be offered to them in Baghdad, Jaafar said.

But the team's supporters say Iraqi leaders can do far more than provide cash and gifts to honor the players, who represent the nation's main ethnic and religious groups. "One of the best rewards that can be given not only to the team but to all of Iraq is that the politicians unite like the players did," said Mohammed Khalaf, a former team captain who now directs programming for the state-run Iraqiya Sports Channel.

Times staff writers Said Rifai and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.

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