BAGHDAD (AP) – Authorities planned stepped-up patrols in Baghdad today as they intensified security to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens of revelers celebrating Iraq’s progress to the finals of Asia’s top soccer tournament last week.
Undeterred by the violence, optimistic Iraqi soccer fans prepared to celebrate if their national team beats Saudi Arabia and takes the Asian Cup for the first time. But many said they would be more cautious this time.
Talib Mustafa, a 17-year-old Shiite high-school student from eastern Baghdad, said he would paint an Iraqi flag on his chest and celebrate – in a safe place – if the team wins.
“The terrorists want to deprive us of any chance to be joyful, but tomorrow we will do our best in celebrating and forgetting our woes,” he said.
The jubilation about Iraq’s ascension to today’s final in Jakarta, Indonesia, gave Iraqis a rare respite from the daily violence. The victorious run sent men of all ages cheering and dancing in the streets.
“We have been suffering for a long time, not just in recent days,” striker Younis Mahmoud told reporters Saturday in Jakarta. “But we know that by winning, we can make the Iraqi people happy. We have reached the final, but that is not enough for us. Our ambition is win the title.
“We are shouldering our responsibility to bring hope to the Iraqi people,” Mahmoud said. “The players are concentrating on the match. It is the only way they can make the people happy.”
But extremists seemed just as determined to destroy national pride and unity. Two car bombs tore through crowds of revelers in two Baghdad neighborhoods, killing 50 people after Wednesday’s semifinal against South Korea.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said security forces would be on high alert today and patrols would be stepped up. The U.S. military also said it would position troops as necessary to maintain security nationwide.
“We also will urge people not to celebrate in groups and not go near security forces,” Khalaf said. “The terrorists intend to kill as many people as they can in such events. We will also implement tough measures against those who shoot into the air.”
Disciplinary action would be taken against members of the security forces who join in celebrations, he said after reports that soldiers left their posts and fired their own weapons in the air after the recent victories.
“Their duty is to protect those who are celebrating and not celebrate with them,” Khalaf said.
In Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, the police chief announced a 6 a.m.-9 p.m. vehicle ban Sunday to prevent suicide car bombings. Jamal Dhahir also banned celebratory gunfire, warning that offenders would be jailed and weapons confiscated.
At least seven people were killed in Baghdad by such shooting after the Iraqi victories last Sunday against Vietnam and South Korea on Wednesday.
Iraq has never gained the finals in the Asian Cup, the continent’s premiere soccer competition. A win today against three-time champions Saudi Arabia was certain to send the soccer-crazy Iraqis back to the streets.
Already, stores selling Iraqi flags, baseball caps with the national colors and T-shirts reading “I am Iraqi” are reporting brisk business.
“We ran out of stock and we had to buy more in order to meet demand,” Nazim Hassan, 35, who sells Iraqi flags and T-shirts in the central Baghdad Shorja market.
Suheil Jabar said he sold 4,500 flags and 1,500 T-shirts last week and that he had to hire additional tailors to keep up with demand.
But Wednesday’s bombings may temper any celebrations.
“We want to be happy, but not add more to our suffering and pain,” said Falah Hassan Abid, a 40-year old Arabic teacher and father of three from Baghdad’s eastern neighborhood of New Baghdad.
“I will watch the game at home and celebrate in my own style. I will fire my Kalashnikov in the air from the roof of my house, but I will not go out.”
In violence Saturday, a parked car bomb exploded in a busy shopping street in predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding 10, police said, the latest in a series of explosions targeting commercial centers.
The blast struck about noon, a peak time for street vendors and nearby stores along the Maaskar al-Rashid street, a popular gathering point for people selling tires and spare parts for automobiles.
At least 29 other people were killed or found dead nationwide.
Despite the unrelenting bombings, U.S. and Iraqi officials have claimed some success in reducing violence as they fight to gain control of the capital and surrounding areas ahead of a pivotal progress report to be delivered to the U.S. Congress in September.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said Saturday the military was seeing a slide in roadside bombings and casualties and an increase in the ability of Iraqi security forces to perform more operations.
“If those trends continue, I feel confident that we’ll be able to do something in the spring,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told CNN in an interview, but added that any withdrawal of U.S. troops should be gradual.
“I think if we do it in a deliberate way, I think we’ll be able to maintain what we have gained and turn it over to the Iraqi security forces in a very meaningful way,” he said. “If we have to do in it a big hurry, I think there could, there’s some potential pratfalls with that and that has to do with al-Qaida trying to come back in, some sectarian violence because we don’t have the right forces there.”