Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sunni, Shia celebrate unity through soccer

by 1st Lt. Jonathan Springer
1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division

YETHRIB, Iraq (July 7, 2008) – For more than half a decade, the Balad and Yethrib areas have been plagued with sectarian violence that has pitted rival Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs against one another. The bloodshed between tribes, at times, had turned into all out warfare that was waged in palm groves and fields near the Tigris River. In 2007, the conflict between the Muslim sects had reached a boiling point and many throughout Iraq described the situation as having elements of civil war. But since then, things have drastically changed.

Over the course of 2007, the “tribal awakening” began to spread throughout all of Iraq. This awakening saw many high profile Iraqi sheiks turn their backs against the brutality of foreign led fighters and stand up, along with the coalition forces and Iraqi security forces, to take back the streets of their homeland. Because of this dedicated partnership, the sectarian violence that once gripped the Balad and Yethrib region is almost non-existent now, and attacks are down in almost all parts of the area.

A soccer player from the village of Albu Faras (left) chases after an opposing player from al Jamiah, June 30th, during the opening games of the Yethrib Nahi'a soccer tournament in Yethrib, Iraq.With security improving, local citizens have begun taking full advantage of the much improved stability in the country, and many have restarted the political process in their neighborhoods, villages and cities. The heated sectarian strife that once played itself out on the streets of Balad, is now playing out on a modest soccer pitch. On June 30th, teams from al Jamiah and Albu Faras, both small villages near Joint Base Balad, squared off on the soccer field to begin a two-week-long district soccer tournament aimed at promoting unity in the area.

The soccer tournament is a first of its kind in an area of roughly 60,000 people. The tournament is expected to run nightly through July 12th, and will pit over 24 teams from the district in sporting competition against each other for the coveted championship trophy. "This is the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime that we've done something like this. Because of the sectarian violence in the area, we haven't been able to hold this kind of event since 2003," said Shouket Ahmed Rahman, mayor of Yethrib.

Shouket, who was born and raised in Yethrib, said this soccer tournament marks a dramatic turning point for the local villagers in the district. He said this tournament is momentous because it brings various groups of people together, both Shia and Sunni, to rejoice and commemorate the substantial progress that has been made in the Salah ad Din province. "This soccer tournament is all about unity," Shouket added. "In the past, many of these men were fighting each other with weapons … but now, they are battling each other on the soccer field."

Coalition force representatives were on hand to witness the first-ever Yethrib nahi’a soccer tournament, and they were amazed and also proud of what they saw. “It truly is a tribute to the local people that security has improved so much that they can do something of this magnitude. This ‘unity’ is something that will grow as the Yethrib nahi’a continues to prosper,” said Lt. Col. John Dunleavy, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

Dunleavy and his battalion of over 500 artillerymen own and operate the “battle space” that encompasses Joint Base Balad. The “Balls of the Eagle” have been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since September 2007 and have worked tirelessly with local leaders in order to ensure the safety and security of the local populace throughout this region.

“The community has turned the table, and now the insurgents live with the fear of capture. Fear was once their primary means to wield influence in the neighborhoods now participating in this soccer match,” said Maj. Timothy Frambes, executive officer for the 2-320th FAR. He added, “The next step in maintaining this secure environment is the continued partnership with the local government and police forces who have come so far in their capability and capacity to provide for the people they serve.”

To locals in the area, this soccer tournament is more than just a game. They say it is significant because it celebrates their return to normalcy. “Right now, security is the best it’s been in years … this tournament is all about celebrating that,” said Ahmed Dawud Suwod, a 38-year old villager from Albu Hishma, speaking through an interpreter.

Frambes pointed out that the game of soccer, in itself, is a way to celebrate life through sport and competition that does not end in violence. Seeing the people, both Shia and Sunni, battle each other on the soccer field, all in the name of ‘unity’, is proof of that. “The teams are voluntarily competing in harsh conditions, and it’s well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Frambes. “The pitch is lined out on a field that hasn’t seen a green blade of grass growing in centuries. But they’re doing this as a community because we have all partnered together to create an environment where the extremists and insurgents are identified, watched, and reported on.” He added, “I see the people of Iraq choosing to live free from fear and intimidation and instead, embracing the freedom and normalcy they now enjoy.

This is not an overnight success. It has been built over time through continued dedication by CF and local officials, Sheiks, and people of influence who have forged relationships bound by the determination to win and refuse defeat.”

After the game was over, the winner was announced. The victor of the first game was identified as the team from Al Jamia, by a tally of 1-0 over Albu Faras. But, to players on both sides of the field, and according to approximately 300 local residents who traveled to watch the game, there were no losers after the game was over … only winners. “It doesn’t matter who wins this tournament. It’s all about celebrating the improved security in the area, and looking past our tribal differences to work together to build a better Iraq,” said Suwod.

Frambes agreed and said that many locals would not be enjoying this level of security if weren’t for the concerted efforts across all areas around Yethrib. “There are innumerable motivations, but the simple fact is that this partnership is the winning team … many who were afraid to take the risk to commit support to the combined efforts of our Iraqi partners now see that we have gained momentum and they’re coming off the fence, getting with their neighbors, and coming out to support Iraqi businesses, the future elections, and community events like this soccer tournament,” said Frambes.

A soccer player from the village of Albu Faras (left) chases after an opposing player from al Jamiah, June 30th, during the opening games of the Yethrib Nahi'a soccer tournament in Yethrib, Iraq.

Source: CENTCOM.

Cross-posted @ Rosemary's News and Ideas.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please be respectful of others, so they may be respectful to you. Have a blessed day.