A Flicker of Hope amid Division and Despair ; LEADING ARTICLE ++ IRAQ

Article excerpt

The victory of Iraq's national football team in the Asian Cup is one of those extraordinary and inspiring events that defy all historical and sporting odds. Here was a team made up of Iraqis of all religious persuasions and ethnic hues at a time when the country hovers on the brink of civil war. Here was a team where every player had lost family or friends in the four years of internal strife. Yet, starting as the ninth-ranked team in Asia, the Iraqis steadily played their way up the order, beating the favourites, Saudi Arabia, 1-0 to win.

The victory, which was celebrated throughout Iraq with volleys of gunfire that cost more lives, none the less offered a rare flicker of hope in a country otherwise mired in despair. One measure of that hopelessness is the exodus that has been gathering pace. As our correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports today, 2,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes every day. What is happening is, he says, the biggest mass exodus ever in the Middle East; it surpasses anything seen in Europe since the Second World War.

This vast displacement of people stands as yet another indictment - along with the disorder, the deaths and the destruction - of the invasion mounted by the United States with Britain's help, and the grievously mismanaged occupation that followed. Between us we destroyed a country - not a particularly pleasant or free one, to be sure, and certainly not a democracy, but not a country either where people took their lives in their hands when they went to buy bread or took their children to school.

Two million people have now fled their homes for other parts of the country. A huge redistribution is in progress, as towns, regions, and the country as a whole are re-divided along religious and ethnic lines. For many, the Kurdish region has become the closest to a safe haven that those without the means to go abroad can aspire to. …