Iraq footballers stumble amid nearby Baghdad blasts


By Mohamad Ali Harissi (AFP) – https://twitter.com/aleeharissi

BAGHDAD — It was the 60-minute mark in Iraq’s football friendly against Liberia and fans in Baghdad were nervously hoping against hope that their national side would ward off defeat.

Then explosions just a short distance from the stadium yanked their minds back to what is an all-too-familiar story in the violence-plagued city.

Two car bombs went off about 20 minutes apart at used car dealerships in Habibiyah, both echoing through the stadium as Iraq battled to overcome a 1-0 deficit on Monday afternoon.

The second, which sounded even closer than the first, sparked shouts from the thousands of spectators of “La ilaha ila Allah,” or “There is no God but God,” a chant typically reserved for funerals or news of deaths.

At what was only the second international to be played in Baghdad in two years, fans scrambled to the top of the stands, looking to see where the blasts had struck, while two sides on the pitch gamely played on.

But after the final whistle, with Iraq down 1-0, frustration with the national side mixed with resignation over the continuing violence in Baghdad, where more than a dozen bombings killed 55 people on Monday.

“In the middle of these explosions, we live our lives,” said Ghazwan, walking out of Baghdad’s Shaab stadium, as smoke hung over nearby areas.

“We are not afraid of these explosions; we are afraid of this terrible team.”

As spectators passed by, cursing Iraq’s players and coaches, the 35-year-old stopped and simply said of the victims of Monday’s violence, “God have mercy on those who were sacrificed.”

While he paused, another fan walked nearby, screaming, “Explosions hit us on the roads, and our team loses on the field!”

“Is there anything worse than this?”

The car dealerships targeted by the bombs were surrounded by soldiers and policemen, all trying to convince the crowd that had gathered to disperse, fearful of a follow-up attack, a common feature of violence in Iraq.

No group has claimed responsibility for the carnage, but Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda often set off coordinated attacks in Baghdad. They typically target Shiite Muslims, whom they regard as apostates, or the government or security forces in a bid to raise tensions and undermine confidence in the authorities.

Anwar, owner of one of the dealerships, scanned the damage to his and other businesses, which had been targeted by the first blast.

The 57-year-old tried to calm his fellow businessmen, repeatedly telling them, “Thanks be to God for safety,” and “God will compensate you.”

“A car came here while we were busy watching football, and it went off,” he told AFP. “They (militants) took advantage of our love for football.”

As Anwar spoke, 47-year-old dealer Fadhel Hanun interrupted by launching into a tirade.

“Guards are here, and a car explodes here! How can we understand this? This is a failed state.”

Nearby, at the site of the second explosion, 27-year-old Rabiyah recounted the moments following the blast, when he had been in his car.

“I threw myself to the ground,” he said, standing among more than a dozen destroyed cars, all of which had been for sale. “I felt so much fear that it pushed me to open the door and run.”

“I was only here to sell my car,” he said.

Also at the site of the attacks, a heavyset man who looked to be in shock sat down, resting one arm on the blackened chassis of what had been a car.

When his phone rang, he immediately handed it to another man, telling him, “I think I have lost my hearing in the explosion. Please answer whoever is calling, and tell them that I am okay.”

The atmosphere was a far cry from the hope espoused ahead of the match in Shaab stadium, where the Liberian side were positive about the future for Iraq.

“As human beings, we were afraid of coming here, but football for us represents a path to solving any crisis,” said team spokesman Henri Flomo.

Referring to his country’s own brutal civil war, Flomo said, “In Liberia, we had an internal crisis for 14 years, but we came back, and now we are united.”

“We are sure that Iraqis can achieve this.”

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