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Real Madrid gathering not target of Iraq cafe attack, but many soccer fans died

By LOVEDAY MORRIS | The Washington Post | Published: May 14, 2016

IRBIL, Iraq — When they take to the pitch Saturday for the final game of the Spanish soccer league season Real Madrid players will wear black armbands in mourning for those killed when Islamic State gunmen stormed a cafe in northern Iraq, opening fire on those inside.

The men, the soccer team says, were its supporters, who had gathered for a union meeting.

That's not entirely true, but there is no shortage of fallen fans for Real Madrid to mourn.

The Furat Cafe in the Iraqi town of Balad, some 50 miles north of Baghdad, was the new meeting place for the local Real Madrid Union. They had gathered there for the first time on May 4 to watch their team triumph 1-0 over Manchester City. A group picture from that day shows a grinning group of more than 50 fans in their soccer shirts, waving the club's flags.

But on Thursday night there was no match, and when the gunmen burst into the cafe at around 11.30 p.m., there were some union members there, but it was the usual crowd, said Haval Doski, 34, who left around half an hour before the militants attacked.

The gunmen fired on those gathered drinking coffee and smoking shisha. One dropped a grenade in carnage that left 10 people dead, according to cafe patrons. Local officials put the number at 13, while Real Madrid said 16 were killed.

Photos of the bloody aftermath showed blood smeared on the white tiled floors, on the wall with the Real Madrid union banner, left up from their last meet, bearing images of the club's logo merged with the Iraqi flag.

Burair al-Baldawi, 36, a member of the union who knew many of those who died, said those killed were among the "purest and kindest" men that he'd ever known.

They included Ahmed, a 20-year-old university student, not a particular soccer fan but he would sometimes join to watch matches. There was Haider, a Manchester United fan who owned a burger restaurant. Yaqthan, a "playboy" who "loved life and women" and supported Real Madrid. Qais who was recently engaged and planning his wedding. A young 16-year-old called Ahmed who supported Barcelona, Real Madrid's most bitter rival.

"When there was a Real Madrid match he'd refuse to sit with us, we'd always tease each other about the two teams," said Baldawi. "He wanted to be a pilot."

The cafe's owner, a Real Madrid fan, also died. "When he opened this business, he was so excited," Baldawi said. "It was his dream to run one of his own."

In a statement after the attack Real Madrid expressed "great sadness" and offered condolences to the families and friends of those killed.

"Real Madrid extends all of its solidarity to the people of Iraq, who suffer the excessive injustices of extreme violence," it said.

Those cut down in the Furat Cafe are just the latest in a constant flow of innocent deaths. Some 410 Iraqi civilians died in April, according to the United Nations, which says that number should be considered as an "absolute minimum" because of the difficulties of obtaining and verifying data from some areas.

In March, a suicide bomber targeted a boys soccer match in southern Iraq. Of the 43 killed, 29 were under the age of 17. One was 10-year-old Mohaned Khazaal, a Real Madrid fan who idolized their star forward, Cristiano Ronaldo.

As many as 93 people died in just one day in three suicide attacks in Baghdad last week. The worst of them hit a market in Sadr City, which has been regularly battered by Islamic State bombings. In soccer mad Iraq, it's likely that just as many Real Madrid fans died there as in Furat Cafe. It's likely that the club's fans die in violence here every day.

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The Washington Post's Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.
 

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