The success of Iraq's footballers in transcending ethnic-sectarian identity provides an example the government could follow
The pull-back of US troops in Iraq has focused attention on the country's biggest fault lines: its sub-national ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Both the US vice president, Joe Biden, and ambassador, Christopher Hill, recently placed a priority on promoting internal Iraqi reconciliation. Washington realises that the fragility of the Iraqi state stems largely from the distrust between the main ethnic-sectarian groupings that dominate the political infrastructure.
The systematic failure of a nominally "national unity" government has resulted in endless delays in reaching decisions over the key issues of oil, federalism and matters of reconciliation themselves. This inertia could be seen on Tuesday when the Iraqi parliament failed to reach agreement on the presence of a handful of British military trainers remaining in the country.
So what chance for reconciliation? Politico-economist Paul Collier, in his recent book on democracy in developing countries, stressed the importance of building a nation before building a state. In Iraq this appears to have been done in reverse, with the US in 2003 desperately trying to construct the machinery of a collapsed Iraqi state while the nation descended into civil war.
Instead of imposing its own ideas on what a reconciled Iraqi nation should be, the US would be well advised to look at the green shoots of reconciliation growing on Iraq's football pitches.
The success of the Iraqi football team in transcending ethnic-sectarian identity is proving one of the few pillars of national unity in the country. During the past month they played their first home games since 2002. Crucially, at this time of heightened tension in the north between Kurds and Arabs, and following the killing of 437 Iraqis in June, the team played their first game in Irbil and their next one in Baghdad.
The team includes Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and winning the Asian cup in 2007 brought thousands on to the streets to celebrate across the country. However, this almost universal reaction to football success was brought to a bloody end by a series of Baghdad bombings that killed 50.
Football is Iraq's most popular sport. The national league started up again in 2004 but has been blighted by security concerns and the targeting of large crowds by bombers. Violence remains a critical issue, with a fan shooting dead a footballer just as he was about to score an equaliser in March, although some reports suggested the player died when he was hit by celebratory gunfire from one of his own fans.
The Iranian football team showed recently how sport could be used to make a high-profile political statement. Could Iraq's football team bring home a sense of national unity currently sorely lacking? The Iraqi government was praised for its recent handling of the security at a religious festival; if an ethnically and religiously mixed league can be guaranteed the same security, and if the national team continues its successes, then football can increasingly be used as a symbol of national unity.
Although the Americans do not have the same passion for the game (the US army used the national pitch as a tank park following the invasion), simple resources that suit the US embassy's new austerity budget should be allocated to bringing Iraqis together from behind the blast walls of division. A rare good news video from the BBC gives a glimpse of the difference that turning wasteland into a football pitch can make to a walled-off, curfew-bound community.
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