The favourites from Baghdad, 10-time champion al-Zawra (named after Iraq’s first newspaper, which began publication in 1869), take on the long under-achieving side of the Shia clerical capital al-Najaf, who are playing in the final for the first time in the cup’s 32-year history.
“The government has advised us of its concerns about this tie being played in Baghdad because of the risk posed by thousands of fans being gathered in the Shaab stadium,” said the secretary general of the Iraqi Olympic Association, Amer Jabbar.
He said the government was concerned about the difficulties of scheduling the game around the curfew in the capital.
Even when the curfew is not in force during the day, as it has been several times in recent weeks, the night-time ban on movement imposed since June 14 begins at 8:30 pm (1630 GMT).
But torrid daytime temperatures in the capital at the height of summer make any kickoff before 6 pm inconceivable, leaving little or no time for fans to get home after the full-time whistle.
“That’s why we chose Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan and chartered a plane to carry al-Najaf and al-Zawra teams up there,” Jabbar said.
Recent security fears in Baghdad
The city has a 20,000-seat stadium and has been largely free of the attacks caused by the confrontations between Iraqi fighters and US and Iraqi forces that have blighted much of the rest of the country.
A security source said the government had also been motivated by fears of crowd trouble.
In al-Zawra’s semi-final clash with al-Jawiya (air force) on May 24, one fan died and 20 were injured in disturbances on the terraces and police later confiscated weaponry including grenades outside the stadium.
“I believe it just is not appropriate to play the game in Baghdad,” said Ahmed Abbas, the Iraqi Football Federation secretary general.
“How can you ask the security forces to steward tens of thousands of fans when they are tied up providing security for the whole capital?” he asked.
The managers of the two clubs are divided over the change of venue for the already delayed final, which was originally due to be played on June 16.
For the mighty al-Zawra with its large Baghdad fan base, the move is unwelcome.
“The delay and the fixture’s transfer to Sulaimaniya have obstructed our preparations and had a psychological impact on our players who will not be able to perform in front of the fans,” said club manager Saleh Radi.
He said his team would win nonetheless.
But for al-Najaf, the change of venue away from al-Zawra’s fan base in the capital is a welcome boost to their chances.
“The move and the delay have given us longer to prepare, and the change of venue will deprive our opponents of their home support,” said al-Najaf manager Abdel Ghani Shahad.
For the fans of both teams, the move is a disappointment as it will deprive them of the opportunity to watch the game live.
For Shia and Sunnis alike, roadblocks and fear of attack make the long road journey north to the Kurdish mountains virtually inconceivable.
“For me, this cup final is more important than the World Cup in Germany, but it’s too dangerous to cross the country to get to Sulaimaniyah, so I’ll have to watch the game on TV,” said Leith Abdul Jabbar, 50, an al-Zawra fan.
Across the sectarian divide in al-Najaf, 36-year-old hotel employee Majid al-Jashami shared Abdul Jabbar’s disappointment.
“Lots of fans would have loved to go and see the game in Kurdistan, but it’s impossible as the roads are infested with terrorists,” he said.
The match was nearly called off when al-Zawra bosses threatened to forfeit the tie. They had a change of heart when the president, Jalal Talabani, ordered $180,000 in prize money for the winners.