When Iraq's national soccer team qualified for the Athens Olympics on Thursday with a surprising victory over Saudi Arabia in Jordan, rifle shots and tracer bullets flew through the air all over Baghdad. The rat-a-tat-tatting disconcerted U.S. troops, who are used to being the targets of such fire.
Saturday, the players lined up here for a welcome home ceremony, organized by American officials who bankrolled the team and who see the victory as an emblem for progress in Iraq.
For Iraqi players, however, it was a bittersweet affair. These are not pampered pros cut off from the tumultuous events engulfing their country: insurgency in the central and southern parts of the country; an occupation administration that finds it difficult to meet Iraqi expectations; and an uncertain future that haunts Iraqis more than a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"When I was playing the game, Iraq was always on my mind," said Basim Abbas, 22, a left wing. "We were all in a foul mood. We heard about the killing and the destruction. This affected our performance and it took us a while to get going."
Saturday's welcome was a made-for-TV event that encapsulated the progress and frustrations of a country partly at war with the Americans, partly at war with itself and yearning for a day of quiet, not to mention a day when the paychecks arrive on time.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, arrived on the Peoples Stadium pitch in a helicopter, landing on a spot marked by a yellow smoke bomb. It looked like a piece of a Super Bowl halftime show, except that the helicopter was a military Black Hawk and the stands were empty. Bremer was flanked by a half-dozen bodyguards in black vests who cradled big rifles in their thick arms. A sniper scanned the perimeter from atop a stadium light tower.
"They didn't even allow our families and fans to come for fear someone would kill Bremer," said Ahmed Ali, 22, a shaven-headed goaltender.
The players handed Bremer a white jersey with a big number "1" on the back. But they looked glum when he walked off leaving them nothing but congratulations. They had expected a bonus for beating Saudi Arabia and earning a berth in the 16-team Olympic soccer tournament this August in Athens.
"We're sad because we thought Bremer would give us the prize now," explained Alaa Sattar, 21, a slim midfielder. "We gave him a T-shirt and he gave us nothing. So this was only for propaganda to show things are good in Iraq."
Bremer declared the Iraqi victory as an omen. "Iraq is back," he said three times. The players agreed, sort of.
"We as Iraqis are living in very difficult times," said midfielder Haidar Abdul Qader. "We needed this victory to make ourselves happy and make all Iraqis happy. We can forget our grief at least for a little while."
As for the missing bonus money -- the amount promised is unknown -- an excuse was couched in terms familiar to workaday Iraqis, whether they are looking for an imprisoned relative, asking for compensation for war damage or trying to get someone to investigate a crime or pick up the trash: It's someone else's responsibility. Mounzer Fatfat, Bremer's adviser at the Ministry of Youth and Sport, explained that it was all a misunderstanding.
"The Iraqi Olympic Committee is supposed to take care of that," he said. "It was not supposed to be delivered by Bremer. They'll get it. It just needs to be sorted out."
He pulled a group of players aside to urge them to stop frowning.
"We can't give the money now because there are other things we have to do. If the state does not give it, I'll give it to you from my own pocket," Fatfat said. "We can solve these things among us. Don't let the media hear about these things."
The 24-member soccer team will join six other athletes who will compete in swimming, weightlifting, track, wrestling, boxing and taekwondo. Only four athletes competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The Iraqis will walk into the stadium under the old national red, white and black flag. So much negative commentary greeted the recent debut of a new blue, yellow and white banner meant to symbolize the new Iraq that it has been shelved.
"This is the Iraqi flag," said Basim Abbas, pointing to a patch on his chest. "It's not Saddam's flag. We are proud of it."
Not more than a year ago, the thought of a trip to Athens was impossible.
"This is a dream. I don't have words to express how I feel. Walking into the Olympic Stadium? I couldn't imagine it. I can't imagine it," said Abdul Qader.
Iraq is a soccer-crazed country. Neighborhood teams play on sandy lots on Fridays, the day of rest, kicking worn balls into raggedy nets. Under Hussein, the Iraqi professional league, with teams representing government agencies and the military, operated right up to last year's outbreak of war. After Hussein's fall, players revealed the terrifying risks they took by playing. A loss could mean imprisonment and torture at the hands of Uday, Hussein's son and Olympic Committee chieftain. One former player told reporters last year that a poor performance could be punished by training sessions in ball and chains. "Now we play because we want to win, not because we are afraid to lose," Sattar said.
Fear of speaking out is gone -- an inarguable achievement in post-war Iraq. Not only were players bold in criticizing Bremer, they openly espoused opposing views on verbal attacks by radical religious leaders on Thursday's soccer celebration.
Last Friday in Sadr City, a slum neighborhood where supporters of rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought with U.S. troops much of the past week, a preacher asked God "to curse everyone who shot bullets into the air, and not on occupation forces, for that silly game that diverts us from Holy War."
At a Sunni Muslim mosque in downtown Baghdad, another cleric railed, "Shame on those who shot for the winning football team when our nation is being slaughtered and our honor, violated."
Ali, the goaltender, agreed. "People of Karbala and Najaf are suffering," he said of two Shiite towns at least partially in Sadr's hands. "We shouldn't have celebrated this event. We have to think of all Iraqis."
Midfielder Abdul Qader, 22, dismissed the critique. "The sheikhs have no right to forbid celebration of this victory," he said.