Iraqi lawmakers greet Asian Cup soccer heroes

Sunday, August 5, 2007
Nour Sabri, left, goalkeeper for the Iraqi national soccer team, and Mahdi Karim, right, held up the Asian Cup trophy during a victory party at the al-Rashid hotel in the Green Zone in Baghdad. (Hadi Mizban ~ Associated Press)

The prime minister gave each player a diplomatic passport and put a wreath of flowers around their necks.

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi lawmakers clapped and cheered for the country's Asian Cup soccer champs at a rare gathering Saturday during parliament's summer recess.

Politicians posed for photos with the players at a hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, but the celebration was closed to all but Iraq's political elite, with tight security preventing regular citizens from welcoming their soccer heroes home in person.

Fawzi Akram, a lawmaker on parliament's sport committee, invited the players to a special legislative session in their honor.

"I invite the national team for a special session in parliament to praise them for what they have given for the sake of Iraq -- its unity, people, land and sovereignty," Akram told the crowd. He did not say when the session would take place, but parliament is on summer recess until Sept. 4.

Behind Iraqi lawmakers in coats and ties, a crowd of dozens of youths waved Iraqi flags and danced with jubilation. One raised a cell phone camera to snap a photo of the silver Asia Cup award, festooned with flowers.

The team arrived in Baghdad on Friday, minus three players -- including captain Younis Mahmoud, the Sunni who scored the winning goal in the final, who remained abroad out of fear for his life. The homecoming came nearly a week after Iraq bested three-time champions Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final cup game July 29 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Hundreds of Iraqi expatriates had turned out at victory celebrations during stops in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Amman, Jordan. But there was no parade or public fete in Baghdad.

"I feel sorrow that the soccer win is being exploited for political purposes, which is very clear from the site of the celebrations in the Green Zone," said Hamid Qais, the 30-year-old owner of an accessories store in Baghdad.

Several hundred fans waved Iraqi flags and scuffled with police as they pushed through airport security to greet players as they stepped off a charter plane Friday evening.

Police wielded truncheons against some in the crowd who were trying to touch goalkeeper Nour Sabri. He was hoisted onto the teammates' shoulders and carried to a waiting bus, which took the team into central Baghdad for a meeting with the prime minister at his Green Zone office.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave each a diplomatic passport and put a wreath of flowers around their necks.

Without public festivities, there was no repeat of the deadly bombings that marred celebrations after the team's semifinal victory last month.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the death of a Marine during combat Thursday in Iraq's western Anbar province. That brings to at least 3,664 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.

In other violence, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi Army convoy killed one civilian and wounded five others Saturday at a busy intersection in central Baghdad, police said.

Four of the wounded were Iraqi soldiers, a police officer said on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.

In western Baghdad, a mortar round landed on a house in Ghazaliyah, killing another civilian, another officer said on the same condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces said in a statement that four suspects were killed in a raid targeting an insurgent group believed to be coordinating logistical support from Iran for Shiite militias in Iraq. The killings took place Saturday in the town of Qasirin in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, it said.

During the operation, U.S. troops called in fighter jets to fire on a suspected weapons cache below, destroying it, the military said.

Among those detained in other raids Saturday was the alleged leader of a terror group responsible for planting roadside bombs in Mosul, the U.S. military said in another statement. Another member of the group was also taken into custody, it said.

West of Tarmiyah, U.S. troops captured 20 suspects accused of having ties to a high-ranking al-Qaida in Iraq figure, the military said. Two more suspects were also arrested for alleged ties to another leader from the same group, it said.

Four more suspects were detained for alleged involvement in a sniper cell that employed 35 gunmen, the statement said.

In Kirkuk, five people were captured -- three accused of association with an al-Qaida media cell, and two for involvement in car bomb attacks, the military said.

In northern Iraq, a police lieutenant colonel was gunned down Saturday morning on his way to work.

Ismail Salim Khudaeir, worked as deputy director of the provincial security affairs department in Kirkuk, a mixed city about 180 miles north of Baghdad. He was killed in a drive-by shooting around 8 a.m. while walking to work, said police colonel Anwar Qadir.

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