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A friendly game unites one war-torn nation against another

By Mohammed Tawfeeq. Hamdi Alkhshali and Ashley Fantz, CNN
March 27, 2013 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
Iraqi team players celebrate after scoring a goal during their friendly soccer match against Syria in Baghdad.
Iraqi team players celebrate after scoring a goal during their friendly soccer match against Syria in Baghdad.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First international soccer match in Baghdad in years brings Iraqis to tears
  • "It's my happiest moment!" an Iraqi fan exclaims
  • Iraqi Football Association chose to play Syrians, who are caught up in civil war

Baghdad (CNN) -- Throngs of jubilant Iraqis, some so happy they wept, gathered early Tuesday at Baghdad's al-Shaab Stadium for the country's first international soccer match in years.

"I cannot believe my eyes," exclaimed Hussein Jasim, 19. He wept and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is great!"

"I have not seen in my entire life that many Iraqis gathered in one location happy, dancing and chanting," he said. "I am not used to it. ... It's my happiest moment!"

A decade after the Iraq War began, Alaa Rahem felt something he hadn't in a long time in this country with tenuous peace -- optimism.

"I have been waiting for this moment," he said. "It is time for Iraqis to live together peacefully. Enough killings and destruction. Let's live together peacefully like we are doing now from inside this stadium. I look around me, and I see Iraqis from different sects shouting ... 'Yes! Yes for Iraq!' "

It was the first international soccer match in Baghdad since Iraq's 4-0 victory over the Palestinian team during a friendly game in July 2009 -- and the first home game inside Iraq since the international soccer governing association, FIFA, lifted a ban last week. Under that ban, Iraq was forbidden from hosting home games after security and technical issues emerged from its loss to Jordan's team in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in September 2011.

Because Tuesday's game was "friendly," the Iraqi Football Association got to choose their opponent. And it chose Syria.

A Syrian player, wearing red, vies for the ball against an Iraqi player during Tuesday\'s friendly match in Baghdad.
A Syrian player, wearing red, vies for the ball against an Iraqi player during Tuesday's friendly match in Baghdad.

"I don't see why we should not play with Syria in a friendly game," said Iraqi fan Khalid al-Jumaili. "Syria is our neighbor, and they need our support.

"Syria opened its borders to all Iraqis over the past years," he said. "It's time for us to pay it back to them and show our support to Syrian people."

Choosing to play Syria seemed amusing to one Iraqi fan.

"I don't know why we started our friendly game with Syria," Adel Zaalan said, laughing. "I believe Iraq should have started to play a friendly game with a country that does not have internal problems. It would be much more solid start for Iraq."

"Don't get me wrong," he continued. "I am not against it at all or against Syrian people, but this could be a good propaganda for Assad regime."

There didn't appear to be any Syrian fans waving flags or holding signs with any political message at Tuesday's match.

For two years, Syria has been locked in a civil war pitting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against rebels who are trying to oust him. The rebels and human rights organizations say al-Assad's forces have committed war crimes; al-Assad claims the violence in Syria is the work of terrorists. The United Nations says the war has claimed 70,000 lives.

It's highly unlikely Iraq chose to play Syria for political reasons, said CNN contributor James Montague, who wrote the book "When Friday Comes," a rollicking first-person adventure through the intersection of religion, war, politics and soccer in the Middle East.

Iraq needed to choose a team that was nearby, and schedules seemed to align for both teams, he said.

"And you're not going to ask a marquee team to come to Baghdad," Montague said.

They might not be Real Madrid, but the Syrian national soccer team is nothing to sniff at. The team has been enjoying a bang-up year, Montague said.

They almost qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and they made the quarterfinals of a major youth tournament last year.

Despite the irony of their team's success amid the backdrop of their country's bitter civil war, the players have avoided discussing the situation in Syria, said Montague, who reported for The New York Times on Syria's Olympics qualifying match in Jordan.

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"There were a lot of interpreters with the squad who seemed to deflect questions, but I have no idea if they were with the [Syrian] regime," he said. "We'll probably never now what's going on behind the scenes until after the war."

While Syria descends deeper into conflict, Iraq is slowly recovering after a decade of war that divided the country along sectarian lines. On Tuesday, inside and outside Baghdad's al-Shaab Stadium, Iraqis of all ages and backgrounds agreed on one thing -- their "Lions of the Mesopotamia" were going to win.

Six minutes into the second half, the Iraqis scored. Captain Younis Mahmoud, nicknamed "The Ripper," drove the ball into the net.

The Lions would take it, 2-1.

Mahmoud, who sports a tattoo of Iraq on his arm, is beloved in his home country. He scored the winning goal in the Asian Football Confederation's 2007 AFC Asian Cup when the Lions beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 in a stunning victory that became a national point of pride.

Mahmoud's war story is also famous, Montague notes, having moved to Qatar to be with his family despite that he could have easily taken offers from various European teams to join them.

Many of Mahmoud's teammates went through hell, some telling of torture by Saddam Hussein's son Uday when they didn't perform well on the field.

Read: Athletes accuse Uday of torture

And then there's the specter of violence tied to matches past.

During the semifinal of the 2007 Asia Cup win, two car bombs went off in Baghdad killing scores of people.

"The match today is a sign that things are improving," said Montague. "It's also a huge test for the government. But for Iraqis, football is everything. The return of football is a return to normality."

CNN's Joe McCurdy contributed to this report.

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