Forget the war Mr. Bush…Talk soccer

Mr. President, here’s a draft of your next major speech. Even though you didn’t actually request it — you will see that it is your best and maybe last chance to see if there is perhaps a sliver of high ground beneath the quicksand that has become your legacy:

“Tonight, I want to honor and speak to all who last Sunday jubilantly informed the world of their emergence as a proud and united nation — the people of Iraq. We shared your joy on Sunday as you celebrated in the streets of your cities and villages, cheering not as Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds, but as one. You chanted: ‘Long Live Iraq!’ and waved the red, white and black Iraqi flag.

“The spirit that drove you to celebrate as one nation came not from the world of politics but the world of sports. It was the final match of soccer’s Asian Cup, held in Jakarta, Indonesia, as your Iraqi team, known as the Lions of Two Rivers faced a powerful and highly favored Saudi Arabian team.

“We could imagine your joy as you watched on television the action 4,897 miles away, as your team’s only Kurdish player, Hawar Mohammed, kicked ball in a perfect arch to a Sunni who is Iraq’s team captain, Younis Mahmoud; and he headed it brilliantly into the net. Then your team’s Shiite goalkeeper, Noor Sabri Abhas, stopped all 12 Saudi shots, preserving the 1-0 victory that gave Iraq its first Asian Cup.

“It was a symbolic moment that reached beyond sports and into the hearts of the Iraqi people. You experienced something wonderful that we in the United States and many others elsewhere have experienced before — how people who are proud of their different heritage, regions, backgrounds and beliefs can unite as one. We also know from our own history what it is like to plunge into civil war, for there was a time when our people let regional differences and shortsighted leaders plunge us into prolonged death and devastation.

“On Sunday, you discovered bonds that enabled you to reach beyond your sectarian divisions, to brush aside those in your midst who foment hate. The question today is whether you can build upon that bond, forge a functional unity that can be your key to Iraqi progress and prosperity. Or whether you will allow yourselves to plunge into civil war, until you learn, as we did, the most painful lesson. On Sunday, you were celebrating the moment. But some saw it as a window to a promising future.

“In the city of Irbil, in the Kurdish north, Mahmoud Fadhil, paused in his celebration to tell The Washington Post: ‘We are all one today, with one heart for Iraq and against terrorism. Look, over here there are Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, all of them with one heart today.’

“And outside Baghdad’s Sheraton Hotel, Murtada Sabnar, told a New York Times journalist: ‘Our happiness depends on these guys who played in Asia. I wish they would come and take over the Parliament, for they are the ones who really represent us.’ That may be the message of the moment. Just as Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish teammates came together and inspired you to celebrate as one, this may be the moment when you, the people of Iraq, can come together to inspire and, yes, to lead your leaders.

“Inspire or if necessary insist that your government ministers, Parliament, military and police stop allowing sectarian loyalties to paralyze your nation and plunge it into civil war.

“The hero of Sunday’s Asian Cup game, Younis Mahmoud, told a reporter Sunday: ‘I want America to go out. Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out.’ I know that Mr. Mahmound’s concerns are shared by many Iraqis. Many Americans also feel that way. I want them home too. But I do feel we have a responsibility to help your elected leaders to secure your homeland against those who seek to divide your country by killing your families and friends.

”Some of them are Iraqis, others are outsiders from neighboring countries — if they succeed they will do so at your peril. But securing your nation is a job for Iraqis, not Americans. Soon we will be gone. Will your country be on a path that will take you toward prosperity or civil war?

“Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow all Iraqis will have to choose whether the unity spirit of Asian Cup Sunday was a one-time, one-sport thing — or whether it can become the bond that will build a prosperous future for the land of two rivers.”

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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