Baghdad:Thousands of Iraqis poured into the street, dancing, chanting and firing shots into the air in celebration on Friday of the Asian Cup win over Australia, a country many here see as an occupation force.
Iraq stunned Australia with a 3-1 victory in the Group A match in Thailand, putting the pre-tournament favorite on the verge of a humiliating early exit from the competition.
Shortly after the referee blew the final whistle, sporadic gunfire could be heard in central Baghdad. People who had been glued to their television sets dashed into the streets of the capital to celebrate - a welcome reason to cheer for residents who live in daily fear of attacks and suffer from unemployment as high as 70 percent.
In Baghdad's central neighborhood of Karradah, hundreds of young men waved Iraqi flags and chanted slogans supporting their soccer team. The fans were on motorcycles, in cars and even on top of buses. Some took off their T-shirts and waved them. Drivers stopped their vehicles in the middle of the street and went out to dance.
"Despite all of what is happening, the most important thing for us is Iraq. Soccer unites Iraq. Long live Iraq," a man shouted from inside his car before driving away.
School teacher Salem Issam, 24, said he watched the game with his family. He said the victory was great because Iraqis need good news.
"Iraq has become known all over the world, and international television stations show images of explosions, killings, kidnappings and violence, but today we are happy, even if it is for one hour," said Salem. "We ask God to rescue us from the crisis we are living."
Australia, a close US ally, has 1,000 troops inside Iraq and another 600 providing air and naval support in the region.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent 2,000 troops to support U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion in 2003. One Australian soldier has been killed since the war began, as has an Australian-British dual citizen who was flying with the British air force.
"The game today was some kind of a challenge because we were playing with a country that has military presence here and at the same time a country known to have a strong team" said lawyer Mohammed al-Kharasani, 52. "Regrettably, the Australian team played looking down to us since they are an occupying country."
"Today's game was a mixture of sports and politics," said Fares Abdul-Latif, an Iraqi athletics teacher. "This game proves to the world that life is going on and so does sports in Iraq, despite all the wounds of war."