Leading Article: A flicker of hope amid division and despair

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The Independent Online

The victory of Iraq's national football team in the Asian Cup is one of those extraordinary and inspiring events that defy all historical and sporting odds. Here was a team made up of Iraqis of all religious persuasions and ethnic hues at a time when the country hovers on the brink of civil war. Here was a team where every player had lost family or friends in the four years of internal strife. Yet, starting as the ninth-ranked team in Asia, the Iraqis steadily played their way up the order, beating the favourites, Saudi Arabia, 1-0 to win.

The victory, which was celebrated throughout Iraq with volleys of gunfire that cost more lives, none the less offered a rare flicker of hope in a country otherwise mired in despair. One measure of that hopelessness is the exodus that has been gathering pace. As our correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports today, 2,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes every day. What is happening is, he says, the biggest mass exodus ever in the Middle East; it surpasses anything seen in Europe since the Second World War.

This vast displacement of people stands as yet another indictment - along with the disorder, the deaths and the destruction - of the invasion mounted by the United States with Britain's help, and the grievously mismanaged occupation that followed. Between us we destroyed a country - not a particularly pleasant or free one, to be sure, and certainly not a democracy, but not a country either where people took their lives in their hands when they went to buy bread or took their children to school.

Two million people have now fled their homes for other parts of the country. A huge redistribution is in progress, as towns, regions, and the country as a whole are re-divided along religious and ethnic lines. For many, the Kurdish region has become the closest to a safe haven that those without the means to go abroad can aspire to. But the conditions in the refugee camps there are primitive, and violence creeps daily closer.

A similar number again have left Iraq and found refuge mostly in Jordan and Syria. Some are supported by family or friends. Others have thrown themselves on the mercy of the local authorities. Only now, as the tide of people shows no let-up, is their generosity showing signs of strain - and no wonder: an estimated 1.4 million Iraqis are in Syria. The numbers are eloquent. They testify, first, to Syria's hospitality - which has gone largely unrecognised outside the region. More broadly, they are an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Iraq's future as a state where they can prosper as members of Iraq's once-privileged Sunni minority. Among those leaving are many of Iraq's brightest and best.

This is a tragic loss for Iraq. But it also reflects poorly on those responsible. The US and Britain have not only failed to provide security for those living in Iraq, they have also been miserly about granting refuge to those who flee. Officially, the British authorities consider Iraq a safe country - safe enough, at least, for Iraqis to be returned to. And while the Danes - who are withdrawing from the decreasingly multinational coalition - took all their Iraqi employees with them, those working with or for the British have no similar guarantee.

In this maelstrom of despair and division, the victory of Iraq's football team and the outburst of joy that followed suggest that Iraq's sense of nationhood has survived everything we have thrown at it: the military force, the incompetent occupation, the sham institutions. Might it, perversely, have been nurtured by adversity? Announcing his resignation as coach after yesterday's match, Jorvan Vieira said he had fulfilled his contract by "bringing a smile to the lips of Iraqis". We dare to hope that it will not be the last.

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