Crowds of Iraqis wept and fired rifles into the air on Sunday after their team completed a fairytale run in the competition with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the final, making them first-time champions of the continental tournament.
Police in Baghdad and Kut reported at least seven deaths and more than 50 people wounded by stray bullets as revellers took to the streets in a wave of euphoria after four years of war.
Unlike earlier in the week, when suicide bombers killed 50 people after the team won the semi-final on Wednesday, there were no reports of major bomb strikes against fans.
But Iraqi security forces detained two men in a car packed with explosives in eastern Baghdad not long before the match started, police said. They were accused of trying to attack football fans.
Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi, the Iraqi military`s chief spokesman in Baghdad, said security forces killed a suspected fighter and defused a car bomb in the Saidiya district of southern Baghdad soon after the match.
A vehicle curfew began in Baghdad at 4pm, half an hour before kick-off, and was to stay in place until 6am on Monday (02:00 GMT).
Similar bans were imposed in Kirkuk, and Najaf and Karbala, where the authorities said they had received intelligence of possible car-bomb attacks.
Six people died when mortar rounds hit a house in Balad, 80km north of Baghdad, police said.
The Iraqi team wore black arm bands in memory of those killed in those attacks.
“The pain is broken!” Jassim Mohammed Jaffar, the Iraqi sports minister, said after the match.
|Younis Mahmoud`s winning header sparked
wild celebrations across the country [AFP]
Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who watched the match in his office, issued a statement praising the team`s victory. Officials said he would give a reception for the players on their return to Iraq.
While mainly made up of Shia, the Iraqi team was captained by a Sunni Turkman from Kirkuk – Younis Mahmoud, who scored the goal – and also contained Sunni Arab and Kurdish players in a broad representation of Iraqi society.
His goal in the 71st minute capped a remarkable tournament for Iraq as they overcame troubles in preparation, logistical nightmares during the competition, and beat some of the best teams in Asia.
It was the ending that most neutrals had been hoping for since Iraq emerged top of Group A after the first round of matches, and fans at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta got to witness an uplifting piece of history.
But even the joy of victory could not wipe away the players` concerns about their country.
Younis called for the US to withdraw its troops from his nation after the game.
“I want America to go out,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn`t invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon.”
He also said he would not return to Iraq to celebrate.
“I don`t want the Iraqi people to be angry with me,” he said. “If I go back with the team, anybody could kill me or try to hurt me.”
But for a moment at least, the win had suspended the country`s war-torn reality and gave the people something to celebrate.
In Baghdad`s Sadr City, a predominantly Shia neighbourhood, women threw sweets to gathering fans and poured water over crowds in the sweltering summer heat.
Spontaneous celebrations broke out in religiously mixed Baghdad as well as in Basra and the Shia city of Najaf in the south and northern Kurdish towns such as Erbil and Kirkuk.
Fans cried and danced in the streets, waving their shirts in the air and hugging.
|The Iraqi team have been riding high on a wave
of national, unified support back home [AFP]
Soldiers with their rifles slung over their shoulders danced with ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad while children, their faces painted in the Iraqi colours, held up pictures of their heroes.
Waleed Tabra, media officer for the Iraqi national team, told Al Jazeera that he could not find the words to describe the joy brought on by the win.
“It is the first time we made it. These are fantastic moments for Iraq football and for all Iraqi people.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in every city are celebrating the victory. My family said it is something unbelievable … People don`t know what to do; they`re all crying with happiness.”
Al Jazeera`s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Erbil, said: “The scenes are incredible. I have been in Iraq for more than 15 years, and I have never seen anything like this.
“Traffic is everywhere. It`s extremely meaningful. I spoke to a young boy this morning who said “if only our prime minister would learn from the team”.
“For the past four years they have been going through so much hardship. The team have actually been living the same hardship as the people do here.
“They have been riding high on a wave of national support and have made their country`s highest national sporting achievement.
“Iraq has never been in the final and under these extremely difficult circumstances this is the biggest win this nation has ever had.
“It`s quite incredible to see celebrations like this far away from politics.”
Abdul-Ilah As-Saadi, an Iraqi based in Doha, Qatar, said: “It was magic. We could have scored 10 goals. It has brought all Iraqis together, I have been getting calls from all over the world.”
Jorvan Vieira, Iraq`s Brazilian coach, who has endeared himself to the fans, the Iraqi people, and the media during the tournament, confirmed that the lifting of the Asian Cup trophy marks the end of his short time as coach of the Iraq national team.
“This victory is most important for the Iraqi people,” he said.
“Not for me or my CV.
“I will never forget this because it was a special situation in special circumstances.
“You bring happiness for one country, not just one team.
“That is the most important thing.”