U.S. soldiers leaned back on metal chairs in the open parking lot where the crowds walked through metal detectors. Inside their cordon they mingled through the stands at Baghdad's national soccer stadium. The games today comprised mixed teams of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi national police, organized by the areas they patrol together, in what's thought to be the largest-scale attempt at soccer counterinsurgency since the U.S.-led invasion six years ago.
These are days, yet again, of great uncertainty in Baghdad. There's been a spate of high-profile attacks after a couple weeks of relative calm. Doubt hangs in the air about what will happen when American forces reduce their numbers in Iraqi cities next month and whether Iraqis can handle what will be thrown at them. But on this hot, hazy afternoon troopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, the Iraqi national police and a London group that promotes reconciliation through soccer provided a microcosm of how things could be if the country stays on track.
U.S. and Iraqi troops mingled in the stands, not only unarmed but in their soccer jerseys and shorts. The stadium, a sleek, tapered oval that holds several thousand, was mostly empty but for the hundreds of Iraqi kids who came to attend soccer clinics or just stop by for a look after prayers or a swim in a nearby community pool. Integrated teams of Iraqis and Americans, including one American woman, played hard on the field. And, in a display of the Iraqi top-down management American military trainers often complain of, an Iraqi commander in the press booth atop the stands could be seen radioing tips to a coach on the sidelines. At one point, he was heard ordering an Iraqi player to apologize to an American opponent, perhaps for some minor contact.
In the VIP section, American and Iraqi commanders sat in overstuffed chairs, sipping Gatorade and mingling with invited sheiks. They were afforded a security detail of U.S. and Iraqi sentries though visitors streamed in and out. Yamam Nabeel, chief executive of London-based FC Unity, looked on. His group uses State Department and private funding to start soccer programs in Iraq and provided the equipment for the ongoing tournament around the days event. A native Iraqi whose family left the country when he was three years old in 1980, Nabeel acknowledged the obvious point that one soccer tournament does not make peace. But for those playing and watching, he said, it might undermine some of the recruiting lines used by insurgents. Potential recruits, he said, "might think, I was on a team [with Americans] and they did not act like you say they do."