BAGHDAD -- Despite the possibility of being kidnapped and killed and the dangers of flying into the capital, or even driving, most of Iraq's national soccer team returned to celebrate with fans yesterday after winning the country's first Asian Cup championship.
Details of the visit were kept secret, but about 1,000 people flocked to the airport anyway, risking a drive on one of Baghdad's most dangerous roads for a glimpse of their heroes. They were rewarded when they spotted 16 of the 23 players arriving from Amman, Jordan, young men in track suits weeping at the sight of so many countrymen united by their 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia on July 29.
"There is no happier moment," goalkeeper Noor Sabri told Iraqiya state television.
"We hope that this unity will not be only for football. We hope everybody will unite to bring happiness to the Iraqi people," teammate Ali Rahima said.
After dark, the players were whisked by bus into the fortified Green Zone in the heart of the city, where more fans waited with a band as team members passed on their way to a dinner with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other dignitaries.
Al-Maliki greeted players one by one, draping wreaths of white and green flowers around their necks, kissing them on both cheeks and congratulating Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Nearby, President Jalal Talabani waited to offer his thanks.
"You have returned the smile to the Iraqi people," al-Maliki told the players. "You have established the path."
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, also greeted the players.
"This team has set an example of teamwork for all of Iraq," he said. "They proved that Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites could in fact work together."
Absent from the event were team captain Younis Mahmoud and a handful of other marquee players, all of whom have been recruited by wealthy soccer clubs in the United Arab Emirates.
Mahmoud had said that he was afraid he would be killed if he returned to Iraq. Iraq's minister of youth and sport, Jassim Mohammed Jafar, said Mahmoud and the other players could not travel to Iraq because they had to sign their contracts in Dubai today.
The team has not played at home for years. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, athletes became targets for kidnapping and killing.
Even their games sparked violence. Celebratory gunfire after the playoff games killed at least 10 in the capital, and a car bomb in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood after the semifinal against South Korea killed 50 people.
The parents of a young man killed in the Karada bombing attended yesterday's gala. The crowd parted as his mother, shrouded in a black abaya, traditional Muslim dress, walked up to meet the prime minister and receive a wreath of flowers, an Iraqi flag and the promise of a new home to replace the one destroyed by the bombing. Her husband thanked the players, who, he said, "made my son rejoice in his grave."
"Long live Iraq," he said.
Many players plan to stay in Iraq through tomorrow, Jafar said, spending today at a celebration in the Green Zone and visiting their families before returning to Amman.
The soccer victory was celebrated at a time when al-Maliki and Talabani are struggling to hold their coalition government together. The main Sunni Arab bloc withdrew from the government Wednesday after submitting demands that included disarming militias, releasing prisoners not charged with specific crimes and sharing security decisions between sectarian blocs.
During prayers in Baghdad yesterday, Sunni cleric Sheik Abdul Kareem Samarrai called their withdrawal a "denunciation of the government's attitude toward the bloc and the hot spots that need to be addressed by the government."
"Let's see what this government can do for the Iraqis," Samarrai said, noting that shortly after al-Maliki's spokesman condemned the Sunni bloc for withdrawing, eight mortar shells hit the west Baghdad offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Sunni bloc.
Shiite clerics said the bloc's withdrawal threatened to ruin the afterglow of the soccer team's victory.
"They withdrew when all Iraqis were celebrating the soccer win and when all Iraqis forgot about their misery," said Shiite Sheik Saleh Hayden.
Al-Maliki is scheduled to visit Turkey and Iran on Monday and Tuesday, spokesman Ali Dabbagh announced yesterday.
He said al-Maliki plans to address Turkish concerns about the Kurdistan Workers Party in northern Iraq.
The U.S. military said yesterday that three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in east Baghdad Thursday, bringing the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since 2003 to 3,665, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks deaths in Iraq.
Police in Baghdad recovered 17 bodies yesterday.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.