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June 17, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1582

Iran-Iraq World Cup Qualifier Match Turns Into Field For Venting Political Grievances Over Iran's Meddling In Iraq

June 17, 2021 | By S. A. Ali*
Iran, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1582

Regional rivalry has often been the 12th player in Middle East soccer matches, particularly during regional matches in which national teams face off. However, no one expected that the June 15, 2021, Iran-Iraq match, held in Bahrain as part of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifications, would turn into a stage for venting political grievances. This is especially true since the outcome of the match would not in any way affect either team's chances of qualifying to advance to the next round.[1]

Iraqi youth who have been vigorously demonstrating across the country against Iran's political and economic overreach in Iraq shared posts on social media highlighting their longing for a morale-boosting win and showcasing their struggle for independence from Tehran, which they accuse of supporting militias believed to have murdered dozens of activists.

Addressing the Iraqi players, one fan tweeted: "Do not spare us a win. I remind you to win to cheer the mothers, children, and youth who were marginalized. Do not forget how sad we feel because of the corrupted parties, clerics, and those who killed our young men, orphaned their children, and saddened their parents. All of them are waiting for you to cheer them, heroes."[2]

To ease the tension caused by such posts among Iranian fans, media outlets affiliated with Iran-backed militias in Iraq shared content aimed at promoting the "strong alliance" and the "brotherly ties" between the two countries, a move that these same media outlets would never make if the Iraqi national team were playing against Saudi Arabia. In the past, those media outlets shared content glorifying Shi'ite Islam and portraying the Saudi players as "Daesh[3] terrorists."[4]

However, one poster released on the Twitter account of the Al-Ahad TV channel, an affiliate of the Iran-backed Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq, stirred controversy even among Iran-backed militias. The poster featured an Iraqi player smiling as he tears up the Iranian flag. Text on the poster reads: "The lions of Mesopotamia [i.e., the Iraqi team] will win by Allah's permission."[5]

A few hours later, Iranian fans shared on social media their own version of the poster, which this time showed an Iranian player tearing up the Iraqi flag.[6]

Realizing its mistake, Asa'ib Ahal Al-Haq shared an apologetic poster via its affiliated Telegram channel, Sabreen News. The poster showed a heart embracing the flags of the two countries with an Iraqi player and Iranian player in the background. The text on the poster reads: "The heart is Iraqi, but its beats are Iranian." The post was captioned: "Victory will definitely be for the lions of Mesopotamia."[7]

Sabreen News shared another post blaming Saudi Arabia and the UK for stirring tension between the fans of the two countries.[8] The post read: "There is a British-Saudi campaign aimed at turning the match into a military battle between enemies and using the mercenaries of the occupation on social media. This escalation coincided with the match held today, which brings together the Iraqi national team with the brotherly Iranian team, with whom we are linked by blood, religion, and geographical borders. The campaign began through the British ambassador [to Iraq], Abu Al-Dolma,[9] who has not worn the Iraqi team jersey in any previous match, except for this one against the Iranian team. Observers are wondering if the British ambassador to Iran will wear the Iranian team jersey, or is it just in Iraq that the embassies are able to recruit, cook dolma, and spread hatred?"

The post also included a poster showing late IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani and deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who were killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad International Airport in January 2020.

Interestingly, Stephen Hickey, the British ambassador who before the beginning of the match tweeted a photo of himself wearing the Iraqi jersey, responded with a tweet explaining that he has worn the Iraqi jersey several times in the past, telling the supporters of Iran-backed militias in Iraq to check his tweet feed.

Following the match, which ended with Iran beating Iraq 1-0, the Al-Ahad TV channel tweeted on its account a new poster showing an Iraqi player hugging his Iranian counterpart with a caption congratulating each team for qualifying for the next round of the World Cup qualifications.[10]

*S. Ali is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Bbc.com/Arabic, June 15, 2021.

[2] Twitter.com, jh_21y, June 15, 2021.

[3] Islamic State (ISIS).

[4] Arabic.cnn.com, January 27, 2014.

[5] Twitter.com, Ahadtv, June 15, 2021.

[6] Twitter.com, RasoolCFC, June 15, 2021.

[7] Telegram, Sabreen News, June 15, 2021.

[8] Telegram, Sabreen News, June 15, 2021.

[9] This is a reference to the UK ambassador to Iraq, Stephan Hickey, who often posts videos on his Twitter account showing his interest in Iraqi cuisine, including dolma (stuffed peppers or wrapped grape leaves), one of the most popular dishes in Iraq.

[10] Twitter.com, Ahadtv, June 15, 2021.

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