By Army Sgt. 1st Class Alex Licea
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 27, 2009 - Cheers, music and fun filled Shaab stadium during a soccer tournament May 22 and 23 here in eastern Baghdad's Rusafa district. In a month-long effort, the London-based soccer organization FC Unity, in cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi officials, provided the people of Iraq a platform for development and education through a series of soccer programs.
As a sense of normalcy continues to fill the Iraqi capital, U.S. officials, along with their Iraqi partners, wanted to show that security is here to stay. FC Unity officials, along with Multinational Division Baghdad paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and Iraqi security forces, wanted to bring part of their culture to the Iraqi people as a gesture of partnership.
"It is a normality of life that we can all come out here and play, Americans and Iraqis together and also Iraqis of different backgrounds -- regardless of their religious, ethnic and social backgrounds -- can come together and play football," said Yamam Nabeel, chief executive of FC Unity.
"If people around the world can see how the U.S. military interacts with the Iraqi people, it shows a different picture to the world that the U.S. Army is here to help the Iraqis build a strong and viable society," he said. "We are here to bring smiles to the faces of the young people."
The tournament, which was open to the public, consisted of 32 community games and four games combining American soldiers and Iraqi security forces. Paratroopers handed out soccer jerseys and other equipment to children who participated in the event.
"We want to give the Iraqi people [their] culture back, and a big part of that culture is sports, and in Iraq, sports means soccer," Army Lt. Col. Michael Shinners said in a television interview. Shinners, of Arlington, Va., is deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade, which is deployed from Fort Bragg, N.C.
For American paratroopers participating in the event, playing soccer in a combat zone is something they could never have envisioned when they deployed to Baghdad late last year.
"This is a huge step in what we are doing here," said Army Spc. John MacMurray, an intelligence specialist assigned to the brigade's Headquarters and Headquarters Company. "This event has really helped us earn the trust of the Iraqi citizens."
During halftime, MacMurray took a break from the action and re-enlisted in the middle of the field for an additional four years of military service. The Minerva, Ohio, native said the experience of re-enlisting in front of so many people is something he always will treasure.
"We had a lot of fun this weekend, and we built great friendships with the American soldiers," an Iraqi National Police officer said. "That was the point of this weekend: to have fun and have a great time."
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Alex Licea serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)