- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2007

BAGHDAD — There were no cheering crowds or a ticker tape parade yesterday along the dangerous airport road to greet Iraq’s Asian Cup soccer champs. And the team’s captain, a Sunni who scored the winning goal, didn’t return home because he feared for his life.

But several hundred fans waved Iraqi flags and scuffled with police as they pushed through airport security to greet the country’s soccer heroes as they stepped off a charter plane about 7 p.m.

Police wielded truncheons against some in the crowd who were trying to touch goalkeeper Nour Sabri. He was hoisted onto his teammates’ shoulders and carried to a waiting bus, which took the team into central Baghdad for a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at his Green Zone office.

Mr. al-Maliki gave each team member a diplomatic passport. He had already announced a $10,000 bonus for each of them.

The team was then feted at a dinner attended by lawmakers and Cabinet members, as well as relatives of victims of two car bombings that struck revelers in Baghdad after the semifinals.

Team captain Younis Mahmoud, the Sunni who scored the winning goal in the final on Sunday, did not make the trip home, saying he feared for his life in Iraq.

The team — named the Lions of the Two Rivers — hasn’t played a home game in 17 years because of fears of violence and U.N. sanctions under Saddam Hussein.

Because of tenuous security at home, the players do not live in Iraq and must train and practice abroad, earning their wages playing for league teams across the Middle East.

Tight security in the heart of the capital — and the team’s late arrival — prevented many Baghdad residents from celebrating in the streets.

“It is an incomplete joy, because all other people welcome their winning teams in the streets of their capitals and we in Iraq had to be the last ones to receive them,” said Naeem Abdullah, 40.

While violence was much diminished yesterday among Iraqis, the U.S. military reported four American soldiers were killed in Baghdad — three in a single roadside bombing.

And in Najaf, the holy Shi’ite city south of the capital, yet another aide to the country’s top Shi’ite spiritual leader was gunned down. Iraqi authorities tightened security around the residence and office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the killing, the second slaying of one of his aides in less than two weeks.

Fadhil al-Akil, who was in charge of collecting a Shi’ite religious tax to fund Ayatollah al-Sistani’s seminaries and charities, was gunned down Thursday as he was walking home after evening prayers.