Does Iraq's Asian Soccer Championship Signal Hope?
Fox News, August 6, 2007
On July 29, in the midst of bombings, explosions and assassinations throughout Iraq, the nation burst into a celebration of joy and happiness that was unprecedented in the past four years. The Iraqi national soccer team, for the first time in its history, had magnificently won the Asian Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Iraqis from all walks of life celebrated in the streets with elation. The team triumphed over Saudi Arabia, which has produced the most wins in the history of the championship. The joy and pride that Iraqis felt for their team — and the makeup of the team itself — transcended all sectarian lines.
The winning point came from the Iraqi team captain, a Sunni named Younis Mahmoud, who bounced the ball off his head and into the net. His assist for the play came from a Kurd, Hawar Mohammed, and throughout the game the goalkeeper, a Shiite named Noor Sabri Abbas, prevented the Saudi team from scoring, his fourth straight shutout.
So how could a team with 50-to-1 odds against it winning the championship manage to accomplish what no other team has done in the history of the Asian Cup? Not only did the Iraqi team start the final game of the cup as underdogs, but individual team members were playing against personal odds, too. During the two-week stretch of the championship, three of them learned that relatives had been killed during violence back home. But despite a little guy standing and heavy hearts, the players came together as a team — a unified Iraqi team.
The key to Iraq's victory was the sense of unity and solidarity among the players who worked as a closely bonded team, which turned the Cinderella team into a soccer powerhouse that dominated the entire tournament despite all odds.
Millions of fans celebrated as unified Iraqis in the streets back home, forgetting the sectarian strife that has been tearing their country apart. In the midst of the celebrations in Irbil, a city in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, a man exclaimed to an American reporter that Iraqis “are all one today . . . over here are Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, all of them with one heart today.”
Iraqis are wondering: if 11 young men can instill a sense of unity by playing soccer, can the government of Nouri al-Maliki and the 275 politicians elected to steer Iraq to a brighter future achieve the same result? The people are particularly wary of the government as more evidence surfaces suggesting closer ties between Iraqi officials and the secret torture centers, as well as the death squads meant to heighten sectarian violence.
Another element of Iraqi culture that brings people from all backgrounds together is the classical music scene. The Baghdad Symphony Orchestra, comprised of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, continues to rehearse every week and perform as often as possible, in spite of death threats from Iran-backed religious extremists who condemn Western art and music.
The orchestra’s director, Karim Wasfi, a cellist who trained at Indiana University, is committed to bringing Iraqis together through music. He believes that classical music brings hope by reminding people of their inner strength and power to survive. Now, more than ever, he wants to use music as a force for unifying people and a secret weapon for fending off the devastating effects of war. “The cello sound is better and more effective than car bombs, assassinations or suicide bombers,” he says.
The Baghdad Symphony is a microcosm of the type of society Iraq could have if the Iranian regime did not continue to foment sectarian violence.
The ability of arts to transcend politics and war was also evident in mid-July at a festival attended by hundreds of young artists from across Iraq. For 10 days, the diverse group studied and performed ballet, jazz and modern dance, chamber and symphony music, and theatre, guided by renowned instructors from the U.S. The intent of the festival was summed up in its name, The National Unity Performing and Visual Arts Academy. The highlight of the festival was the National Unity Concert, in which Iraq’s four symphony orchestras joined with the festival’s youth symphony to perform as one giant group.
According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, in mid June, as many as 10,000 Iraqi tribal leaders and local residents, mostly from the volatile Diyala Province, gathered in the headquarters of the main Iranian opposition in Ashraf City, which is also in the Diyala Province. At this event, which combined speeches and entertainment and was called "solidarity for peace and freedom in Iraq," a statement signed by 450 thousand inhabitants of Diyala called for unity of all Iraqi ranks against foreign intervention, especially that of the Iranian regime. Tribal leaders and local politicians called for a unified, terror-free Iraq. Iraqi musicians from all sectors of the society performed while Iraqi men and women sang, joined by youth from the Iranian opposition who also sang and played Iranian musical instruments.
Iraqi sports and music, as well as the large social and political gathering in Ashraf City, are living proof that Iraqis from all political and religious backgrounds can live, work and thrive in harmony.
So what is the problem? If the Iraqis are so dedicated to working together and can accomplish so much with teamwork, why are we witnessing the horrifying sectarian violence in Iraq today?
The problem is Iran’s widespread and deadly presence in Iraq, which ranges from its infiltration of government and security forces to its backing of Shiite militias; its manufacture of deadly, armor-penetrating explosively formed penetrators (EFP) to its training Iraqis in Iran for terrorist activities. But Tehran’s arms have not reached into the heart and minds of the Iraqis. In areas of Iraqi society not infested by Iran’s radical fundamentalist agenda, covert agents or paid-off officials, the prospect of a nation in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds live peacefully together shines through.
How many other sections of Iraqi society would be enjoying the same unifying qualities today if Iran had not swept in to bolster radical extremists and turn the nation inside out?
The strength and resilience of the Iraqi people, as evidenced in sports and culture and in the lives of all those who refuse to be swayed by Iran-backed Islamic fundamentalists, deserves the world’s deepest respect. In June 2006, some 5.2 million Iraqis, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds signed a petition calling for unity, denouncing Iranian regime's intervention and commending the Iranian opposition's positive role in Iraq. They prove that the future Iraq does not have to be a sister Islamic Republic of Iran, conquered by the religious extremists in Tehran.
If Iran is stopped from supporting the sectarian violence and interfering in Iraq’s political and social sectors, the Iraqi people will have a chance to form a peaceful, pluralistic society. The ayatollahs in Tehran may think the odds are against this, but clearly, in the hearts of the Iraqi people, odds are meant to be beaten.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is a FOX News Channel Foreign Affairs Analyst and the author of "The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Prior to becoming a contributor for FOX, and until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.