It took an errant kick ricocheting off a goalpost half a world away for Iraq to feel, however briefly, like a nation again. A divided, violent one, yes - but a nation nonetheless.
As the Iraqi national soccer team eked out a shootout victory over South Korea on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets in a paroxysm of good feeling and unity not seen in years. It was more rapture than celebration, a singular release of the sort of emotion that has fueled so much rage and fear and paranoia. But this evening, at least at first, it seemed diverted into nonstop-car-horn bliss; spontaneous parades clogged streets from Irbil to Karbala, from Basra to Mosul, from Ramadi to Baghdad.
Then, just as suddenly, the moment passed in places, and the fractured Iraq re-emerged. As throngs of people danced and shouted in Baghdad, insurgents took advantage of the unguarded revelry. Two suicide car bombs ripped through cheering crowds in Mansour, on the western side of Baghdad, and in Ghadir, on the city's eastern side. Together they killed at least 50 people and wounded 135 more, according to an Interior Ministry official.
Witnesses said the first blast tore through a crowd that was chanting, "Today is your day, heroes!"
"We were out celebrating in our neighborhood, standing, singing, shouting and clapping, with all the youths cruising in their cars," said Laith Abdul Rahman, 27, who survived the bombing. "What is the matter with these people? Can't they bear it that we Iraqis have something to rejoice in and be proud of?"
Another dark underbelly resurfaced: The police in the capital said they arrested several men who had used the cover of the crowds and the fusillades of celebratory gunfire to gun down and kill several people against whom they apparently harbored old vendettas. At least one bullet-ridden body was seen being carried near Sadoon Street in central Baghdad.
But in most of the country there was a spontaneous, unifying elation, as Iraqi television channels broadcast raw footage of the celebration for hours. One anchor on a channel closely allied with the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki summed up the sudden torrent of happiness:
"The Iraqi players with this win have done what the Iraqi politicians have failed to do all these years for national unity," he said.
Wednesday was the second time in a week that Iraqis took to the streets to express their excitement over the soccer team's performance in the Asia Cup qualifiers. Similar celebrations - uninterrupted by insurgent violence - took place Saturday after the Iraqi team's quarterfinals win over Vietnam. The next match will pit Iraq against Saudi Arabia in the finals scheduled for Sunday in Indonesia.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.
- U.S. government: A leading Democratic House Iraq war critic said he'll soon push legislation that would order U.S. troop withdrawals to begin this year and predicted Republicans will swing behind it this time. A vote on Rep. John Murtha's proposal will come as early as next week and possibly again in September, when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, delivers a long-anticipated assessment on the war. Murtha said he envisions troop withdrawals to start in November and take about a year to complete.
- Other violence: Police reported the discovery of 18 unidentified corpses throughout Baghdad. Three Iraqis were killed and two were wounded by a homemade bomb hidden in a car in the Shaab district. North of the capital, police officials in the Diyala province said gunmen kidnapped four young men who belong to a Turkmen political party in the town of Saadiyah; their severed heads were found four hours after the abduction.
- Government: Iraq's largest Sunni Arab bloc announced it was suspending its membership in the Shiite-led coalition government over unmet Sunni demands, such as the release of some detainees and the disbanding of militias. Members of the Iraqi Accord Front issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying they would quit his fragile government permanently unless he meets their requests within a week.