Iraqi teams face off to be 'lords of the ring'

"Who's the hero of Iraq?" roars Mohanned al-Hindi, parading like a wrestler in a ring and cheered by fans, after winning the traditional Ramadan game of Mheibis.

His victory is not one of brawn, but one of careful observation -- Hindi has found the ring that a member of the opposing team held hidden in the palm of his hand, thereby scoring a point in the Mheibis championship round.

The game is wildly popular in Iraq, though it is only played during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

At night, after a day of fasting, neighbourhood teams of up to 50 men face off in cafes or on the streets to discover who in the opposing camp holds the hidden ring.

But this year, the worst violence to hit the country in five years reduced the number of players willing to venture out, and the championship was held in daytime behind a guarded hotel door.

"This year for Ramadan, we only played a few matches outside," says Amer al-Kurdi, 40, the captain of Baghdad's Habibiyah team, which played against Husseiniyah in the championship.

"A suicide bomber recently killed five members of the Hurriyah team just before a match," Kurdi adds by way of explanation.

But today is about the competition, not the danger of attacks or the myriad other problems Iraqis face.

"I know who has the ring just by reading the expression on his face," explains 30-year-old Hindi, who captains the Husseiniyah team.

"The idea is to destabilise the opponent, to scare him by shouting, to cause him to reveal something by a change in his demeanour or expression," he says.

"I memorise each face and can then tell every change in facial expression," says Hindi, who insists he knows the difference between a bluff and a real tell-tale sign.

As it happens, it takes him only a few minutes to discover who holds the ring from among the 35-strong opposing team, and his own club goes wild as it scores a point.

The first team to reach 13 points wins -- an honour ultimately claimed by Hindi's team.

To kick off a game, players wearing traditional white dishdasha robes huddle behind a large hand-held cloth as the ring is secretly handed to one of them.

They take their places, sitting or kneeling in three rows, as Kurdi strides up to them.

"You must have a high degree of concentration and an excellent memory, along with a gift for the game which comes in part from experience and practise," says Kurdi.

He crouches down and stares into the faces of each member of the Husseiniyah team while they, in perfect silence, look down and keep their arms folded across their chest.

"Show me your hands," he suddenly orders one of them.

The player briefly holds out both arms, keeping both fists tightly closed.

"Look at me," he roars, and the player briefly looks up before returning his stare to the ground.

Kurdi runs from one row to the next. He looks here, hovers there, ignores one player but then turns on him suddenly and orders him to show his hands three times running.

"You, you, and you. Out, out, out," he cries as he dismisses three players who open up their hands to confirm they are indeed "clean".

In another round, Kurdi dismisses 33 of the 35 players without a hitch. But he falls at the last hurdle and picks the wrong man as holder of the ring.

"It's always the first three rounds which are the most difficult," he says.

"I concentrate on their faces. There are signs. Sometimes it's the tip of the nose that goes red. Or the way he sits, or the way he holds out his hands. When he has the ring it shows," he says.

A local television station, Al-Diyar, broadcasts the competition with the final to be screened during the celebration marking the end of Ramadan later this week.

"We have one of the highest ratings for this show," says Al-Diyar presenter Fuad al-Baghdadi.

In the crowd, a young Habibiyah supporter waves the Iraqi flag as others dance madly to the sound of drums.

"It's a way to get back into the real Ramadan spirit, to get out of our homes, to meet friends, to back the team and feel good, far from the bomb throwers," says Amir Qais, a labourer.

"It's the same as in Brazil where they are football crazy -- here too they're crazy about this game," says Kurdi.