'Football is more important'

2009-11-24 20:07

Baghdad - Wrangling over Iraq's general election has triggered political uproar and dismayed US leaders eager to withdraw their troops but many Iraqis are more concerned with a ban on their beloved national soccer team.

For a moment in 2007, at the peak of the sectarian violence set off by the 2003 US invasion, the gunfire that rang out across Baghdad was the sound of Iraqis firing in the air in joy at their team's surprise Asian Cup win, and not at each other.

Last week Iraq was suspended from international soccer by the Fifa world governing body for what it said was "governmental interference" in the country's Football Association, the news saddening more Iraqis than a likely delay of a national poll.

"We're not interested in the polls. It's the same old story and nothing good will come out of it. Football is 100 times more important. It brings together Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds," said Israa Munthar, speaking for a group of three women out shopping.

A general election meant to cement democracy and pave the way for a partial withdrawal of US troops next year is unlikely to take place in January as planned, after haggling politicians held up a law needed to hold the polls.

Most Iraqis interviewed in central Baghdad on Tuesday said they expected little more from their bickering politicians but the Fifa ban was a real blow.

"I doubt there will be elections after the performance of these people who call themselves politicians. The football is more important, and it shouldn't have been politicised. It's the one thing that brings all Iraqis together," said retiree Mamdouh al-Qubaysy, sitting in a coffee shop.

Sectarian divides

Iraq's soccer suspension follows a long-running power struggle between the country's Olympic committee and the Iraqi Football Association. The committee has demanded the IFA elect a new governing board but the soccer federation refused.

At the heart of the dispute is an effort by Iraq's new Shi'ite Muslim-led authorities to wrest control of soccer from an association they view as dominated by sports figures from ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's era.

Hussein's son Uday tortured some football players and other athletes for what he considered poor performances when he was Iraq's sports chief.

Parliament has also been stymied by sectarian wrangling between Iraq's new leaders and once dominant Sunnis.

Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed a law needed to hold the January polls on concerns that Iraqi voters abroad, including many Sunnis, were under-represented.

On Monday, lawmakers from the Shi'ite majority and Kurdish minority communities passed an amended law which would reduce Sunni voting power. Hashemi is expected to veto the law again.

Holding polls after January would violate the constitution and could hurt US plans to end combat operations next August.

"Whether the elections are delayed or not makes no difference. Iraqis are more concerned with the football. It's the one thing that brings us happiness and brings the country together," said Louay Kareem, a day labourer.

"In the elections, if one side wins, the other will always complain."