Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

Anti-government protesters play football during a sit-in on the bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during ongoing protests, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo)
Updated 14 November 2019

Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

  • Victory over Iran in the World Cup qualifier being played in neighboring Jordan could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement
  • Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq

BAGHDAD: For Iraqis opposed to the Baghdad government and its sponsor Tehran, there is even more than football at stake when Iraq faces Iran in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Anti-regime rallies at the epicenter of protests in the capital’s Thrill Square have faded in recent days, following a spree of arrests, threatening messages and killings of activists.
Hussein Diaa hopes that victory over Iran, in the match whose venue has been changed to neighboring Jordan, could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement.
“If our team beats Iran, it will bring more people out onto the streets and lift protesters’ spirits,” said the 24-year-old, kicking a football around in Tahrir.
Behind him stood Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, the main frontline between angry protesters and security forces using tear gas, live rounds and at times machine-gun fire.
“Our players have to give their all so we can hold our heads up high and confront Iran,” said Diaa.
Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq.
The two countries fought a 1980-1988 war and were rivals under Saddam Hussein, but the predominantly Shiite states have grown close since the dictator was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.
The ensuing years saw Iraq swept up in sectarian violence and a war against the Daesh group, and FIFA banned international football matches on its territory.
The match between the two football-mad nations was to have been played in the southern port city of Basra.
But FIFA said it had assessed “the current security situation in Iraq” and informed the local federation that upcoming matches “must be played on neutral ground.”
It accepted Iraq’s proposal to change the venue to Amman.
FIFA’s decision came as a blow to Iraq after global football’s governing body had only earlier this year finally lifted a three-decade ban on it hosting internationals for safety reasons.
For Ahmad Al-Washa, Thursday’s match couldn’t come at a better time.
“Football is the best way to send a message to the whole world. We’re betting on this match,” said the activist.
Washa hoped it could be a way to attract international attention to the protests “so the United Nations can intervene and end the bloodshed.”
Well over 300 people have died since protests erupted on October 1 and 12,000 people have been wounded, but rallies have continued in Baghdad and across the south.
And when the game gets underway, the “Lions of Mesopotamia” will have fans “not just in Amman, but all across Tahrir,” said Washa.
Activists have erected a large screen to watch the match from 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT), usually the time when crowds start to swell in the square.
They will be expecting solidarity from the large Iraqi diaspora in Jordan.
Some have already posted online to call on fans in the stadium to wear medical masks in solidarity with protesters confronted by tear gas back in Iraq.
Other activists have called for fans to stand up in the 25th minute and chant, “We want a country!” — a key slogan of the protest movement and an ode to the day it was relaunched, October 25.
Sensing the encounter on the field could be heated, the head of Iraq’s football federation has been trying to head off any skirmishes.
“No racist banners against the Iranian team, otherwise FIFA could punish us,” he warned.
In more than a dozen showdowns between the national teams, Iran have won 11 times, with six wins for Iraq and two draws.
On Tahrir, Hussein Jawwad said the match could be a shot at a desperately-wanted win, both for the team and the protests.
“We’ve been targeting our leaders recently but on Thursday night, we’ll be aiming for the Iranian football team in Amman,” said the 25-year-old fan.


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.