In football-crazy Iraq, pitches hit by deadly attacks

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Umm Ibrahim stood weeping near a symbolic gravestone at the football pitch in Baghdad where her 13-year-old son was killed in one of a spate of recent deadly attacks on Iraqi grounds.

"Why did they kill our children? They have nothing in this life but playing football," said Umm Ibrahim, which means "Mother of Ibrahim".

Her son was one of 18 people killed in February when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt at the football pitch in the Shuala area of Baghdad, followed by a car bomb that exploded nearby.

Eighteen headstones, some of them bearing pictures of the victims and small fluttering Iraqi flags, have been placed as a symbolic memorial at one end of the football pitch, near the spot where the bomber struck.

Abu Amir, a retired army sergeant who lost three of his nephews, aged 11, 12 and 15, in the attack, was also visiting the site.

"These children are innocent victims; they don't have any guilt," he said.

With Iraq's football grounds hit by a series of attacks, there was no longer a place for children to play, lamented Abu Amir.

He called on security forces to "protect the fields from criminal bastards".

Iraq has been plagued by the worst violence to hit the country since 2008, killing more than 2,900 people so far this year.

Football pitches and even cafes broadcasting matches have become a target for attacks by militants, and the violence has taken a toll on the much-loved sport in Iraq.

FIFA, football's governing body, barred Iraq from hosting international friendlies due to the spike in unrest after having lifted the ban just a few months before.

And violence also pushed the manager of Iraq's top local football side to quit after refusing to travel to Baghdad over fears of attacks.

In Iraq, football is one of the few unifiers among the country's divided religious and ethnic communities.

Iraq's national team won the Asian Cup in 2007, providing a unifying source of pride during the height of bloody Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in which tens of thousands of people died.

And this year, during the current surge in unrest, Iraqis tuned in to see their team place fourth in the Under-20 World Cup.

Football is a small bright spot amid the myriad of difficulties - ranging from deadly attacks to severely lacking basic services and widespread corruption - that Iraqis face.

"Targeting the people, and especially the children, is an ugly crime against humanity," said Abdulamir Abboud, a prominent Shuala resident who works for Iraq's Olympic committee. "Children are far from politics and conflicts." Abboud said that the number of people coming to the field in Shuala to play football fell after the attack, and sometimes no one came to watch the children play.

He called on the Iraqi government to curb the spiralling violence.

"The bloodshed must stop... Killing one child might topple a whole government in another place," he said.

In the Zafraniyah area of Baghdad, players have returned to a pitch where a car bomb killed five people and wounded 10 in June.

"The explosion was a failed attempt to stop (everyday) life," said Bassem Sakran, a member of the municipal council for the area.

Players only stopped coming for a limited period, and that was for "mourning the souls of the victims", he said.

"We returned for training and we will never stop," he said, acknowledging nonetheless that football training for players under 12 had been halted because families objected, fearing for their sons' lives.

"The Zafraniyah explosion had a negative effect on the spirits of the players, but it did not stop us," said Saif Abdulhussein, the captain of a local Zafraniyah football team.

"Terrorism wants us to walk on its path, but we will not stop playing football," he said.

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