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Iraqi soccer fans are told to hold their fire

The warning about weapons isn't heeded after the match with Qatar. But it could have been worse.

June 23, 2008|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Sports became a surprise topic Sunday during a routine news briefing by the U.S. and Iraqi armed forces on the battle against the insurgency.

With Iraq's beloved national soccer team poised to qualify for the World Cup in its game against Qatar on Sunday night, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Iraqi government's "Imposing the Law" campaign, delivered a stern warning to gun owners -- essentially every adult male in Iraq.

It was a concept every American knows.

Use a gun, go to jail.

"Our dear people are practicing uncivilized traditions," Atta said, referring to the rampant discharge of firearms after important victories on the field of play.

Atta said the shooting after Iraq's victory over China this month killed one person and injured about two dozen others.

Therefore, he said, "we had made orders to arrest the violators and transfer their cases to the judicial system, whether civilians or the security forces."

Some of the most flagrant shooting last week was done by soldiers manning checkpoints, critics said.

"Hopefully our team will win today, and we will celebrate, but expressing happiness should be away from all the gun firing," Atta said.

Predictably, the warning was not heeded. A scattering of muzzle reports crackled across the city at the end of the 90-minute match in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

But it was nothing like the mighty fusillade that would have followed a victory. The Qataris took the day, 1-0, eliminating Iraq from the 2010 World Cup.

Against all odds in this war-racked nation of ethnic and political splinter groups, the soccer team had emerged last year as a symbol of unity by winning Iraq's first Asian Cup.

The defeat might prove to be Iraq's most honorable possible exit from the competition, as the World Cup federation continues to consider disqualifying the team over a squabble involving the International Olympic Committee.

The dispute began in May when the Iraqi government, amid charges of corruption and cronyism, declared the national Olympic Committee illegitimate. The group had failed to convene a quorum since four of its 11 members were kidnapped in 2006. Their fates remain unknown.

The International Olympic Committee stepped in, suspending Iraq this month for "political interference."

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, briefly imposed an international ban on Iraq based on its understanding that all the country's sports federations had been dissolved.

An appeal from an Iraqi Cabinet member led FIFA to provisionally lift the ban. But the Associated Press reported that FIFA officials might still ban the team if the Iraqi government did not address its concerns.


Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis, Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.

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