Fifa lifts three-decade ban on Iraq hosting international games
Decision follows improved security and a sell-out friendly against Saudi Arabia in Basra
Fifa has lifted its near three-decade ban on Iraq hosting international football matches, with the cities of Erbil, Basra and Karbala being approved to stage official competitive games.
The three cities had been allowed to organise friendlies in the last year on condition that the country's security situation was stable.
"We are allowing international matches to be staged in the cities of Erbil, Basra and Karbala," Fifa president Gianni Infantino told reporters after a meeting of the Fifa Council in Bogota on Friday.
The decision was welcomed by the government in Baghdad.
Iraq will host Qatar and Syria for a friendly tournament starting on March 21 in Basra and the first official games, involving club sides from other nations, could come as early as next month.
"Fifa has given the green light for the resumption but the organisers of the championship must take the final decision," added Mr Infantino.
The football world governing body, however, said it could not yet agree to a request from Iraqi authorities to organise matches in the capital Baghdad, but Mr Infantino promised that the city's application would continue to be studied.
Friday's decision followed an international friendly between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in Basra on February 28, their first on Iraqi soil in 40 years, after which the government in Baghdad had again pushed for the ban to be lifted.
The match in Basra was watched by Asian Football Confederation head Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa who said the time had come to end the three-decade ban.
He welcomed the decision on Saturday.
"This is a significant moment in shaping the future of football in Iraq," he said in a statement.
"I congratulate the Iraqi Football Association and all their stakeholders in working so hard to achieve this positive outcome for the game in their country.
"Football development in Iraq can only be benefited by the ability of Iraqi football lovers to see matches played on their own soil and to become involved in the game at every level."
Iraq has not played full internationals on home turf since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait under then dictator Saddam Hussein.
The ban, covering all but domestic matches, stayed in place after the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam.
It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil led Fifa to promptly reinstate it.
Years of insecurity have followed the US-led invasion 15 years ago and ISIL militants' occupation of swathes of northern and western Iraq between 2014 and the end of last year has made hosting sports events a major challenge.
The Iraq Football Association welcomed Fifa's decision but vowed to "spare no effort for games to be played in stadiums in other provinces, including Baghdad".
"This decision puts our sport back on the rails," it said.
Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, who declared victory over ISIL in December, said the lifting of the Fifa ban was the "fruit of stability in terms of security and of the successes achieved by Iraq."
For years, Iraq has been busily building stadiums and lobbying stars and the sport's governing bodies for a return to the international fold.
That effort has come despite the country being plagued by a still high level of violence.Iraq's first home competitive games could come in April as two clubs have fixtures in the AFC Cup which were postponed pending Fifa's decision.
While the ban has been in place Iraq has played its home matches in Iran, Jordan or Qatar.
Updated: March 18, 2018 02:35 PM