BAGHDAD: Iraq is hosting a football international against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for the first time in almost four decades, in a friendly encounter with high diplomatic and political stakes.
With its match in the southern city of Basra against the Saudis who have qualified for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, Iraq aims to strengthen its case for FIFA to lift its ban on home competitive internationals.
The country has not played full internationals on home turf ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo.
The ban, covering all but local matches, stayed in place after the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil led world football’s governing body promptly to reinstate it.
Iraq in December declared victory over the Islamic State jihadist group following a three-year battle, and FIFA finally relaxed the ban, allowing international friendlies at stadiums in Arbil, Basra and the shrine city of Karbala.
For Saudi Arabia, the match is part of a slow process of boosting diplomatic and economic ties with post-Saddam Iraq, while at the same time countering the influence in the country of its regional rival Iran.