BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Crowds of ecstatic Iraqis wept tears of joy and fired rifles into the air on Sunday after their soccer team’s victory in the Asian Cup triggered the biggest street celebrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Police in Baghdad and Kut reported at least seven deaths and more than 50 people wounded by stray bullets as gun-toting revelers took to the streets in a wave of euphoria unprecedented after four years of war.
Unlike earlier in the week, when suicide bombers killed 50 people after the team won the semi-final on Wednesday, there were no reports of major bomb strikes targeting fans.
“The pain is broken!” Sports Minister Jassim Mohammed Jaffar told Reuters after Iraq beat heavily favored Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Jakarta.
“I swear we are heroes. This is a proud moment for all Iraqis,” a fan in Baghdad’s Karrada district cheered.
Authorities had imposed vehicle curfews and security forces were on alert. The team wore black arm bands in memory of those killed in Wednesday’s strikes.
Brigadier General Qassim Moussawi, the Iraqi military’s chief spokesman in Baghdad, said security forces had killed a suspected insurgent and defused a car bomb in the Saidiya district of southern Baghdad soon after the match.
Six people died when mortar rounds hit a house in Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad, police said.
Spontaneous celebrations broke out in religiously mixed Baghdad as well as in Basra and the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf in the south and northern Kurdish towns like Arbil and Kirkuk.
Fans cried and danced in the streets, waving their shirts in the air and hugging.
Soldiers with their rifles slung over their shoulders danced with ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad while children, their faces painted in the Iraqi colors, held up pictures of their heroes.
While mainly comprised of Shi’ites, the team was captained by a Sunni Turkman from Kirkuk — goal-scoring hero Younis Mahmoud — and also contained Sunni Arab and Kurdish players in a broad representation of Iraqi society.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who watched the match in a gold-painted chair in his office, quickly issued a statement praising the team’s victory. Maliki will give a reception for the players on their return to Iraq, officials said.
In Baghdad’s Sadr City, a sprawling Shi’ite slum, women threw sweets to gathering fans and poured water over crowds in sweltering summer heat.
“A thousand congratulations for all Iraqis,” another fan said.
Television presenters, draped in the red, white and black Iraqi flag, dissolved into tears. One Iraqiya television reporter was engulfed by a crowd in Baghdad and re-emerged on the shoulders of chanting fans.
CNN broke into normal programming to announce the win and the U.S. military congratulated the team.
A vehicle curfew began in Baghdad at 4 p.m., half an hour before kick-off, and was to stay in place until 6 a.m. on Monday
Similar bans were imposed in volatile Kirkuk, and Najaf and Kerbala, where authorities said they had received intelligence of possible car bomb attacks.
Iraqi security forces detained two men in a car packed with explosives in eastern Baghdad not long before the match started, police said. They were accused of trying to target soccer fans.
Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, before the match against firing weapons into the air, a traditional tribal celebration. Two people were killed by falling bullets on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk and Aseel Kami and Aws Qusay in Baghdad