BAGHDAD - Iraq's national team beat Palestine 4-0 on Monday in their first international match in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S-led invasion. Baghdad's Shaab stadium, which seats about 45,000 people, was full to bursting point with jubilant Iraqis waving flags and cheering on their national side, although few Palestinians made it to the game. Some fans sat next to the goals at both ends of the pitch until Iraqi security forces cleared them away. Iraq hopes to convince FIFA the country is safe enough to host official matches again. "I am so happy!" shouted Jabbar Qassim, 21, shortly after performing a break dance with his friend to an amused crowd. "Mark my words: I will come to every match the Iraqi football team plays in Baghdad forever." The country hosted on Friday its first match since the war in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil. Iraq also beat Palestine in that match, 3-0. FIFA, football's world governing body, approved both games, but has yet to lift a general ban on Iraq hosting matches. OTHER COUNTRY "We have waited more than six years for this," said Nasser al-Shimari, 37, who brought his family. "It's great to see our team live. Now we feel like any other country in the world." One family came from Basra 420 kilometres (260 miles) by car. Nadhim Shakir, who replaced Bora Milutinovic as Iraq's coach after the team were knocked out of the Confederations Cup last month, hopes Iraq can soon host other internationals. Iraqi players, like many Iraqi athletes, have sometimes been targeted by militants and criminals. In March 2008, gunmen killed a local team coach and ex-footballer Munther Khalaf outside his home. An Iraqi fan shot dead a player of an opposing local team during a match in March 2009 in the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad. "The message is clear: the audience is showing there is security in Baghdad," said Najeh Ihmoud, deputy head of the Iraqi Football Federation. "They are sending a message to the international union to lift the ban on Iraqi sport." Iraqis love football. Their team were the surprise winners of the 2007 Asian Cup. The victory brought rare unity to nation riven by sectarian war, with Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds pouring onto the streets to celebrate a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
13 July 2009
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