by Prashant Rao
BAGHDAD (AFP) — Standing alongside the pitch at Baghdad’s Al-Shaab stadium as more than 50,000 rabid fans cheered on their national side, Mohammed Raed spelt out his own measure of the city’s improved security.
“The fact that this many people came to the stadium at this time of night in Baghdad shows how much better it is, it is very secure,” the Iraqi Special Forces First Lieutenant told AFP.
Speaking as Iraq’s footballers were late on Monday busy thumping the Palestinian national side 4-0 in the first international football match played in the Iraqi capital since the US-led invasion in 2003, Raed was upbeat about Iraq’s security situation and its future.
“Thanks be to God, we now see people going outside at night – that shows Baghdad is secure,” the 30-year-old said, adding that “this is the first step” towards improving safety around the country.
“The stadium holds 50,000, but when you just look at the stands, you can see that there are definitely more than that.”
Security at the stadium was tight, with cars having to pass through several checkpoints just to enter the car park. As a result, several fans parked their vehicles some distance from the stadium and elected to walk.
There was also a heavy security presence within the stadium, with police, soldiers and special forces all doing their part. Moved by the joyful atmosphere, some soldiers climbed onto the stands to dance with supporters and to urge them to cheer louder.
Iraq’s military and police took over full control of security in the country’s cities, towns and villages from their American counterparts at the end of last month.
The American pullout from urban areas was part of a security pact between Baghdad and Washington, signed in November, that calls for all US troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Iraq’s security forces have taken over amid concerns that they are not ready or able to deal with a return to the high levels of violence and sectarianism that blighted the country in 2006 and 2007.
But on Monday evening in the central Baghdad stadium, the only thing on anyone’s mind was how well the Iraqi side would do, after beating Palestine 3-0 in another friendly in Arbil, in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, on Friday.
As the national side ran out onto the field, the crowd, many of whom were draped in Iraqi flags, went beserk, launching into chants of “Iraq, Iraq”, while three youths brought a flaming torch into the centre of the pitch.
Shortly thereafter, some two dozen doves were released as the two sides began their warm-ups.
Two fans unfurled a banner with the Iraqi flag at the centre, and messages of thanks to the Palestinian side for visiting the country in English and Arabic, although the English version read, “Thanks Plastain”.
According to some witnesses, supporters began showing up at Al-Shaab stadium at 9am for a 6.30pm kick-off – in the event, the match did not actually begin until 7.40pm.
“You cannot imagine what I am feeling,” said a 43-year-old supporter, who gave his name only as Ahmed.
“When the Iraqi team came out onto the field, my heart was racing,” said Ahmed, wearing an Iraqi flag around his shoulders and sporting an Iraq baseball cap.
Babylon provincial government official Hamza Jasim Shateh, 50, echoed those emotions, saying: “This is just the beginning – I hope all countries will soon come to play against Iraq here in Baghdad.”
The issue of sectarianism was quickly dismissed by fans at the stadium, with Ahmed referencing Iraq’s triumph in the Asian Cup in 2007: “When we won the Asian Cup, all Iraqi people came together as one, not Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.”
“All the people here. They are only chanting, ‘Iraq’.”