BAGHDAD, (AP) – Hundreds of pages have been ripped from the calendar since Iraqis last showed the unity and happiness that flowed across the land on Sunday.
And it would have been foolhardy to predict a soccer team — the determined Lions of the Two Rivers — would unleash a flood of joy held back for decades by the dam of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and four-plus years of war since America toppled him.
But after the team’s victory in the prestigious 2007 Asian Cup, the Iraqi people seemed far ahead of their leaders in letting sectarian bygones be bygones and allowing ethnic atrocities to fade.
Despite a security crackdown, curfews banning vehicles, and decrees forbidding the penchant in this part of the world to grab an AK-47 and rip off celebratory rounds, people rejoiced in the streets — and gunfire roared.
It roared across Baghdad at the second-half goal against Saudi Arabia. It was deafening when the underdog Lions sealed the 1-0 victory in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Iraq team’s win dripped with symbolism, not least in the makeup of its front-line strikers: one Kurd, one Shiite, one Sunni.
State television said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was on the phone in seconds talking to the victors. The dour, hard-line Shiite leader announced only minutes into the game that each team member had been awarded $10,000.
And the leader’s office quickly cranked out a note of congratulations:
“There is a big difference between The Lions of the Two Rivers who struggle to put a smile on the faces of their people and those who work in dark corners strewing death and sorrow in the paths of innocent people. We are proud of you. You deserve all our love and respect.”
The U.S. military command issued a message shortly afterward.
“Throughout this demanding competition, you represented Iraq with distinction and honor, inspiring all Iraqis by your unity, teamwork, dedication and athletic ability. We salute you and congratulate you on this tremendous achievement.”
In Shiite-dominated Basra, Iraq’s second city in the deep south, some young men stripped to the waist to show chests painted with the colors of the Iraqi flag. Others painted their faces.
North of the capital in Tikrit, just up the road from Saddam’s hometown and Sunni power base, cars toured the city, horns honking, Iraqi flags poked out of the windows.
In Sulaimaniyah, the Kurdish city in the north, Amir Mohammed, a Shiite Arab who had moved to the area from southern Iraq, walked through the streets arm-in-arm with his Kurdish friend Shaman Aziz.
“The football team has shown that we are united from the south to the north,” Aziz said.
Happiness, too, in southeastern Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Amin neighborhood:
Tariq Yassin, a 24-year-old Shiite in the district, declared himself a shy man who forgot himself and danced in the streets, marveling that “These athletes united us again.”
But even amid the joy, tragedy struck and danger loomed.
In just one Baghdad neighborhood, four people died of celebratory gunshot wounds. Scores were wounded nationwide, and reports of more continued seeping in.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, told The Associated Press that Iraqi police narrowly averted a suicide car bombing in southwestern Baghdad.
Dozens died last week when bombers hit crowds after the team’s quarterfinal and semifinal wins.
With parliamentarians at sectarian loggerheads, and political and religious-driven violence still raging, huge strides await politicians in matching the unity that sprang from Iraqis on Sunday. Rich and poor, Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds, they swarmed out of Baghdad’s swank villas and adobe hovels unified by a sports team — if only briefly.