BAGHDAD, Iraq – A stream of red tracer bullets cut through the night sky amid a hail of celebratory gunfire as Iraqis, exhausted from war and unending violence, celebrated their national soccer teams startling 1-0 victory over Australia in the Olympic quarterfinal.
The victory pulled the underdog team within sight of a medal, an achievement that would turn the entire squad into instant heroes.
In Baghdad (search), young men flocked to cafes and hotels to watch the game. When Emad Mohammed scored the only goal of the game in the 64th minute, fans across the city leapt to their feet, clapping and waving their arms.
After the victory was assured, Iraqis shot into the air, sped through the streets with national flags fluttering from their cars and screamed "God is great" throughout Baghdad.
The victory is a much-needed distraction for Iraqis, especially as a two-week-old insurgency in the holy city of Najaf (search) persists.
"We are very happy, in spite of all the grief that is inside us because of what is happening in Najaf and the whole country," said Haidar Mohsin, 30.
The team's success comes despite an array of challenges few other teams have to face. Not only do team members have to deal with the daily violence here, but they can't even play games on home turf because other nations do not want to come here.
A year ago, Iraq's soccer federation had been disbanded, the team had no facilities and no cash and the nation had been suspended by the International Olympic Committee (search).
The IOC reinstated Iraq only in February, giving it time to prepare for the games.
Munther Elias, a 35-year-old engineer, said he and his brothers celebrated by taking to the streets, dancing and shooting off guns.
"This is an incredible event. I couldn't imagine that Iraq is going to reach the semifinals," he said. "I ask them to keep it up until the end."