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By ESPN Staff

Iraqi team mask their grief with Asian Cup

JAKARTA, July 27 (Reuters) - Iraq's weary soccer team could be forgiven for hoping the fulltime whistle never blows when they play Saudi Arabia in Sunday's Asian Cup final.

Their fairytale ride into the final has captured the imagination of the sporting world and given Iraqis a rare sense of national pride, uniting a country ripped apart by sectarian violence.

Like the Ancient Greeks who used to stop their wars while the Olympics were on, there is at least hope the fighting and violence may be halted while the match is in progress.

For 90 minutes at least, there may be peace in Iraq, but it will only be a temporary relief. When the final whistle blows, life will return to normal.

Guns will crackle again and more people are likely to die.

Three were killed in Baghdad by falling bullets after Iraq's quarter-final victory over Vietnam and another 50 were killed by suicide bombers as thousands of revellers spilled onto the streets to celebrate their semi-final win over South Korea.

The bombings were a painful reminder of the sectarian violence between majority Shi'ite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs that has killed tens of thousands since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The carnage did not escape the attention of the Iraqi team, who have overcome extraordinary odds to succeed where politicians have failed.

The squad is made up of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish players, moulded together by a Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira.

'It was very sad, we changed Iraq's history, and then these senseless killings happen,' Vieira told Reuters.

'We work to bring happiness to the Iraqi people and stupid people do this to innocent civilians.

'If we lose, people get killed, and if we win, people still get killed.'

None of the Iraqi players have been untouched by the war. Everyone has a relative or a friend who has died in the conflict and for some, the pain is still fresh and competing at the Asian Cup has provided a temporary chance to delay their own grieving.

The Iraq team's media officer Walled Tabra told Reuters at least three players had lost relatives in the past few months.

Goalkeeper Noor Sari's brother-in-law was killed just before the tournament began and midfielder Nashat Akram also lost some family members while Hawar Mulla Mohammad's stepmother died two days before the match against Vietnam.

Mulla, who converted the first penalty in the shootout with South Korea, only learnt about her death two hours before the Vietnam match when he received a phone call from Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

'He rang him to offer his condolences. He was very sad but he played the match anyway,' Tabra said.

'This is normal for us. We are used to this now. Not just the players, but everyone in Iraq.

'Of course it is difficult but what can we do? We are just footballers, all we can do is just try and play football. If the fighting stops during the game, then we will all be happy about that.'