Image: Iraq soccer team players.
Kamran Jebreili  /  AP file
Iraqi goalkeeper Noor Hassan, left, holds the AFC Asian Cup as he celebrates with other team members during a ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as they make their way back home from Jakarta, on Tuesday.
updated 8/3/2007 8:26:37 PM ET 2007-08-04T00:26:37

There were no cheering crowds or ticker tape parade Friday along the dangerous airport road to greet Iraq’s Asian Cup soccer champs. And the team’s captain, a Sunni who scored the winning goal, didn’t even return because he feared for his life.

But several hundred fans waved Iraqi flags and scuffled with police as they pushed through airport security to greet the country’s soccer heroes as they stepped off a charter plane about 7 p.m.

Police wielded truncheons against some in the crowd who were trying to touch goalkeeper Nour Sabri. He was hoisted onto the teammates’ shoulders and carried to a waiting bus, which took the team into central Baghdad for a meeting with the prime minister at his Green Zone office.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave each a diplomatic passport and put a wreath of flowers around their necks.

Tight security in the heart of the capital — and the team’s late arrival — prevented many Baghdad residents from celebrating in the streets.

“It is an incomplete joy, because all other people welcome their winning teams in the streets of their capitals and we in Iraq had to be the last ones to receive them,” said 40-year-old Naeem Abdullah.

There was therefore no repeat of the deadly bombings that marred celebrations after the team’s semifinal victory last month.

Violence persists
While violence was much diminished Friday among Iraqis, the U.S. military reported four more American soldiers were killed in Baghdad — three in a single roadside bombing.

And in Najaf, the holy Shiite city south of the capital, yet another aide to the country’s top Shiite spiritual leader was gunned down. Iraqi authorities tightened security around the residence and office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the killing, the second slaying of one of his aides in less than two weeks.

A huge line of cars trailed behind the bus that sped the soccer team into Baghdad. It shot past Iraqi army security checkpoints lining the dangerous route. Hundreds more Iraqis danced and waved their national flag in the streets of the Green Zone.

Al-Maliki, whose beleaguered government was desperate for good news, appeared with team live on state television, smiling broadly and kissing each man three times on the cheek as they filed past him in warm-up suits.

“Greetings to the Lions of the Two Rivers who unified all Iraqis,” al-Maliki said. “I say to the soccer team that you returned the smiles to Iraqi faces, while terrorists try to steal them.”

Mixed team proves unity possible?
The team, named the Lions of the Two Rivers, hasn’t played a home game in 17 years because of fears of violence and U.N. sanctions under Saddam Hussein.

Besides handing out the coveted diplomatic travel documents, al-Maliki had already announced a $10,000 bonus for each man.

The team was then feted at a dinner attended by lawmakers and Cabinet members, as well as relatives of victims of two car bombings that struck revelers in Baghdad after the semifinals.

Many Iraqis interpreted the mixed religious makeup of the winning national team as proof that unity was possible and politicians were more concerned with their narrow sectarian agendas than national interests.

Three don't return home
Team captain Younis Mahmoud, the Sunni who scored the winning goal in the final, did not make the trip home, saying he feared for his life in Iraq. Two other players — Nashat Akram, a Shiite, and Hawar Mulla Mohamad, a Kurd — also did not return. Officials said they were absent because of contract obligations outside the country.

Because of tenuous security at home, the players do not live in Iraq and must train and practice abroad, earning their wages playing for league teams across the Middle East.

Despite the boisterous welcome by a carefully selected several hundred people, most soccer-crazed Iraqis were not able to see the team in person.

But hundreds of Iraqi expatriates had turned out to celebrate the victory as the team returned toward Baghdad with stops in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Amman, Jordan. Iraq bested three-time champions Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final cup game Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia.

No public ceremony
Baghdad erupted in raucous street parties after the victory despite the precarious security situation that still threatens the people here nearly six months after U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a crackdown aimed at ending the violence.

Two car bombings killed 50 revelers after the semifinals. At least five people were killed and scores wounded by celebratory gunfire.

Mohammed Kadhom, a 35-year-old Oil Ministry worker, said he wished the homecoming celebration could have been held at the al-Shaab stadium, a Saddam Hussein-era facility in a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad.

“It is sad that we can’t receive our national team in a public celebration as others do,” Kadhom said. “I myself fear for their safety.”

The U.S. military announced the combat deaths of four more soldiers in Baghdad, including three killed Thursday in a single roadside bombing on the city’s east side. The blast wounded 11 other U.S. troops. A fourth soldier was killed and three wounded in combat the same day in western Baghdad, the military said.

The killing of al-Sistani’s aide also raised concern about the security of the spiritual leader.

Fadhil al-Akil, who was in charge of collecting a Shiite religious tax to fund al-Sistani’s seminaries and charities, was gunned down Thursday as he was walking home after evening prayers in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Al-Akil, 35, was the fourth aide to al-Sistani to be killed. Sheik Abdullah Falak al-Basrawi, who also collected religious taxes for al-Sistani, was stabbed to death inside the cleric’s fortified compound on July 27 or 28, police said, and a security guard was arrested afterward. Two other aides died earlier this year.

Police said it was unclear if the killings were part of internal Shiite disputes or the work of Sunni insurgents opposed to the vast influence enjoyed by al-Sistani.

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