x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

In Iraq, watching a game in peace is a pleasure

Perhaps no country has gone through more change since the last World Cup than Iraq, where in 2006 the tournament played out as the nation was gripped by intense sectarian bloodshed.

BAGHDAD // Perhaps no country has gone through more change since the last World Cup than Iraq, where in 2006 the tournament played out as the nation was gripped by intense sectarian bloodshed. Not so this year. About 50 men sprawled on plastic chairs, smoked water pipes and sipped tea as they watched Brazil play North Korea on an overhead television at a central Baghdad cafe on Tuesday night.

Private generators worked overtime to make up for frequent power outages and to keep the television and electric fans running as the night-time temperature soared above 32°C. Only one glitch: an interrupted satellite signal forced everyone to miss the first 10 minutes of the game. "We sat with our heads in our hands until they fixed it," said Ali Hatem, 24, with a laugh. "But it's worth it. This place is better than sitting at home where there isn't any electricity."

Ahmad Nouri, the cafe owner, scooped ice cream and ordered waiters to work faster as the sound of cheers mingled with that of dominoes slapping against tables. "It makes me so happy to see people feel comfortable and enjoy the game," Nouri said. "We were deprived of this luxury during the last World Cup." Four years ago, Iraq was in the grip of sectarian violence and people largely avoided public venues, fearing bombs or ambushes. Lighting a cigarette, Emad al-Zubaidi, 54, said, "People can breathe and see what's out there now."

Violence has dropped sharply, although Iraqi security forces stood guard near the cafe "Don't worry!" Hatem said. "One day Iraq will be in the World Cup, and we will even host it!" * AP