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Iraq welcomes home soccer heroes

  • Story Highlights
  • Iraq's soccer champions arrived in Baghdad to emotional homecoming
  • Heavy security meant few Baghdadis were able to join the party
  • Iraq's national soccer team won the Asian Cup in Indonesia on Sunday
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -- Weeping tears of joy and pride, Iraq's soccer champions arrived home on Friday to celebrate the Asian Cup victory that inspired their nation, but heavy security meant few Baghdadis were able to join the party.

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The team has been feted in boisterous celebrations in Dubai and Jordan, above.

"There is no happier moment," goalkeeper Noor Sabri told Iraqiya state television in the airport arrival lounge, choking back tears as other players behind him sobbed.

"I don't know what to say. All I can say is congratulations to the mothers of the martyrs," he said, paying tribute to victims of his country's sectarian strife.

Player Ali Rahima said: "We hope that this unity will not be only for football. We hope everybody will unite to bring happiness to the Iraqi people."

Hundreds of Iraqis managed to negotiate a series of security checkpoints in blistering summer heat to reach the airport in the hope of catching a glimpse of their heroes.

"People have been dancing and chanting and singing all day. We haven't gotten tired," a government employee who was at the airport told Reuters.

But most of the city remained locked down in a weekly curfew for the Muslim day of prayer. The majority of Iraqis would see the players only on television.

"It's a shame that this team brought us the happiness of our lives, and we still cannot celebrate them properly," said Ammar Hussein, 33. The Baghdad resident said he did not dare take to the streets for safety reasons.

"This is our story. It is the story of Iraq that we always worry about the security situation even when we are supposed to be happiest."

The team, nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, were due to be whisked to the "Green Zone" for an official ceremony inside the heavily fortified compound that protects U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

Their victory last Sunday triggered nationwide euphoria. After the final whistle in their 1-0 defeat of heavily favored Saudi Arabia, at least seven people were killed by stray bullets as joyous Iraqis fired rifles into the air.

Iraqis hailed the multi-ethnic team, which includes members of different religious sects, as proof the country could overcome the divisions that have led to bloodshed.

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Newspapers and TV commentators contrasted the players with the country's feuding and ineffective politicians.

Since the victory, the team has been feted in boisterous celebrations in Dubai and Jordan. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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