Friday, August 03, 2007


Asian Cup Iraqi football champions fear for their lives

(AP) - Iraq anxiously awaited the arrival of its Asian Cup soccer champs Friday, but most Baghdad residents would be barred from the homecoming celebration because of security. Iraq's soccer team, which hasn't played a home game in 17 years, was due to land at Baghdad's international airport Friday afternoon. Iraqi officials, led by the minister of sport and youth, would receive them, ministry spokesman Hassan Qassim said. The team would then go to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at his office in the heavily fortified Green Zone, said Yassin Majid, al-Maliki's media adviser.
But three players - team captain Younis Mahmoud, Nashat Akram and Hawar Mulla Mohammed - would not be with them. Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in Iraq's 1-0 Asian Cup final win over Saudi Arabia, had said he feared for his life if he returned to Iraq to celebrate the stunning victory. Qassim said a welcome-home celebration would be held in a Baghdad hotel in the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.
"I wish the celebration would take place in al-Shaab stadium, but that is impossible for security reasons," said Mohammed Kadhom, 35, who works at the country's oil ministry. Al-Shaab is a huge, Saddam Hussein-era facility on the capital's east side. "It is sad that we can't receive our national team in a public celebration as others do, I myself fear for their safety," Kadhom said.
Vehicles were banned from Baghdad's streets for four hours coinciding with prayer services on Friday, for a regular weekly curfew on the Muslim holy day. Several rings of security around the Green Zone would prevent ordinary Iraqis from welcoming the team, which has already had celebrations in Dubai and Amman en route back from Indonesia, where the winning match was played.

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