BAGHDAD (AP) -Five years after a surprising run to the Asian Cup title, Iraq is gearing up to play for another global football trophy.
The Iraqis last week qualified for the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, which will be held in Turkey. They got there when the country reached the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation's under-19 championship.
"This is a comeback of Iraqi football achievements," Iraqi Football Association President Najeh Hamoud told The Associated Press on Thursday. "This qualification will boost Iraqi football and it is proof that it never dies despite all hardships because we have the determination and capabilities."
Football has been one of the rare uniting factors in a country torn by war and ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Sports officials use football to underscore Iraq's unity, and as a place where its divisions shouldn't matter.
On Wednesday, hours after a series of suicide bombings killed more than 17 people in a string of Iraqi cities, men gathered to noisily cheer on the national team as it beat Jordan 1-0 in Doha, Qatar, in a World Cup qualifying match that kept alive its chances of reaching the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Iraq has qualified for the Under-20 World Cup three times before, and reached the quarterfinals in 1989. In 1977 and 2001, the team failed to make it through the group stage.
At the AFC under-19 tournament, Iraq is a five-time champion. The last of those titles came in 2000, and a year later the team finished third in a group with Brazil and Germany at the Under-20 World Cup. But Iraq's emerging football program was then devastated by years of sanctions and war.
"Now with this page turned, we have to prepare carefully and work hard for the next page, which will be different and hard as we will play with different teams," Hamoud said. "When you are among the strongest teams in the world you have be strong, too."
Iraq won its biggest football prize in 2007, using several of the U20 players from the 2001 squad and giving its war-weary residents something to celebrate by claiming the continental title for the first time. Although the team qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and finished fourth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the run to the title in Malaysia remains the team's greatest moment on a football field.
Iraq qualified for next year's U20 tournament by beating Japan 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the under-19 tournament. Australia, South Korea and Uzbekistan also qualified for the Under-20 World Cup from Asia.
But the Iraqis didn't stop there. They beat Australia in the semifinals 2-0 on Wednesday, and will face South Korea for the title on Saturday.