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Iraq’s national soccer team will be training and playing more in its home country, government and soccer officials said Wednesday during a news conference in Baghdad to announce the hiring of Brazilian Jorge Vieira as the team’s new coach.

Vieira steered a mixed team of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to the Asian Cup title in 2007 when sectarian tensions in the players’ home country were at their worst. Yet the team was more recently a symbol of Iraq’s fractured government when political infighting in Baghdad almost kept it out of the World Cup and threatened to keep other athletes out of the Beijing Olympics.

Through it all, soccer has been a critical escape and rare unifier for Iraqis. People flooded the streets after the 2007 victories.

Vieira left the team for personal reasons following unsuccessful contract negotiations shortly after the Asian Cup victories. Although he is Brazilian, his contract specifies that as much training as possible must take place inside Iraq. Many of the games must also be played in Baghdad’s stadium.

"I think this is a very important step for sport in Iraq — all sport in Iraq," Viera said.

The contract requirements are possible because of Iraq’s improved security situation. Violence has been dropping since high-profile offensives and accompanying uprisings in the spring. American deaths reached their lowest level in July, although August saw U.S. deaths start to climb again. Still, government officials said the situation is improving.

"The security situation is now very good," said Ali Al Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman. "The audience and fans have returned."


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