BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities announced a ban on vehicles and celebratory gunfire around Baghdad in an effort to prevent a repeat of violence that killed dozens celebrating Iraq's progress to Sunday's finals of Asia's top soccer tournament.
Government offices also told employees to go home early as the nation braced for anticipated massive street parties in the event of an Iraqi win against Saudi Arabia. A victory was expected to send thousands of people into the streets to celebrate — as they did after earlier games in the runup to the finals.
The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said it had planned to send a Cabinet delegation to the game, but that it was not possible to organize a charter flight due to technical issues related to "the flight's path and overflight permissions by countries through which the plane would have to cross en route to Jakarta." The statement did not single out any countries or give more details.
Win or lose on Sunday, al-Maliki's office later announced that each player on the Iraqi team would receive US$10,000 for their achievements.
The jubilation over the ascension of the team known as the "Lions of the Two Rivers" to Sunday's final in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the quarterfinals and semifinals gave Iraqis a rare respite from the daily violence. The victorious run sent men of all ages cheering and dancing in the streets in what politicians said was a show of unity that proved Iraqi factions could come together.
But extremists seemed just as determined to destroy national pride and unity. Two car bombs tore through crowds of revelers in two Baghdad neighborhoods, killing 50 people after Wednesday's semifinal against South Korea.
Undeterred by the violence, optimistic Iraqi soccer fans prepared to celebrate if their national team beats Saudi Arabia and takes the Asian Cup for the first time. But many said they would be more cautious after this match.
Talib Mustafa, a 17-year-old Shiite high-school student from eastern Baghdad, said he would paint an Iraqi flag on his chest and celebrate — in a safe place — if the team wins.
"The terrorists want to deprive us of any chance to be joyful, but tomorrow we will do our best in celebrating and forgetting our woes," he said.
The streets of the city of 6 million people were largely deserted as authorities imposed a vehicle ban that began at 4 p.m. local time — half an hour before the game began.
The ban, which was to last until 6 a.m. Monday, would include all vehicles as well bicycles, motorcycles and carts in a bid to keep "terrorists, Sunni extremists and criminals from targeting the joy of the people over the achievements of the Iraqi national team," Iraqi military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said in an announcement broadcast on Iraqi state television.
The U.S. military said it would position troops as necessary to maintain security nationwide.
Authorities also warned that anybody firing weapons in the air illegally would be arrested, after celebratory gunfire killed at least seven people in the aftermath of previous victories.
"We call upon people to stick to two important recommendations," Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said at a news conference.
"People should keep their celebrations within their own areas while security forces step up measures at the entry points to the areas," he said. "Anybody caught shooting will be arrested and tried according to the Iraqi civil law."
Al-Moussawi said that would include Iraqi security forces.
"Security forces are allowed to participate in the celebrations but without shooting into the air, otherwise they will face judicial measures," he told The Associated Press in a separate interview.
In response to telephone questions to his office, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said celebratory gunfire was religiously prohibited to protect lives and spare people from being terrified, according to an official at his headquarters in Najaf. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The government-run daily newspaper al-Sabah reported that government offices would close at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday to let employees go home early and avoid traffic jams. That could not immediately be confirmed.
Vehicle bans also were imposed in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
It was Iraq's first appearance in the Asian Cup finals and a Sunday win against three-time champion Saudi Arabia was certain to send the soccer-crazy Iraqis back to the streets.
In violence Sunday, gunmen opened fire on shoppers in a Shiite Turkomen village southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing seven people and wounding six, police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said. Local residents blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq but the oil-rich city also has seen rising ethnic tensions amid disputes over Kurdish calls to incorporate it into their autonomous region.
A U.S. soldier also was killed by small-arms fire Sunday north of Baghdad, the military said.
A bomb also struck a minibus in eastern Baghdad, killing one passenger and wounding four others, and a policeman was shot to death on his way to work southeast of the capital, according to police.
Separately, Iraqi lawyers in Baghdad held a one-day strike to protest the violence that has struck the profession and to call on the government to provide them with protection.