Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has ordered an extension of measures introduced to allow citizens of GCC easier entry during the Arabian Gulf Cup.
The eight-team tournament kicked off in the southern port city of Basra on January 6 and will end on January 19.
It brings together teams from the six Gulf Co-operation Council states — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar — as well as Iraq and Yemen.
To encourage GCC citizens to come and support their teams, Iraq waived visa fees and tariffs on cars for Gulf fans until the end of the Gulf Cup tournament, but Mr Al Sudani on Saturday announced that this would be extended.
“The facilitations at the border crossings that have been in place will continue even beyond the competition,” he said at a meeting with the heads of Gulf football federations, football players and journalists.
“Iraqis are welcoming their brothers from the Gulf states to be among their brothers and families,” he added.
Thousands of football fans from GCC countries have travelled to Iraq this month, either in cars via Kuwait or through Basra International Airport.
As of Saturday, the total number of Gulf citizens who have entered Iraq since December 28 stood at 55,402, the Iraqi Border Crossing Commission said.
Of those, 38,527 crossed the Iraq-Kuwait border, while the rest landed at Basra International Airport, the Commission’s spokesman Alaa Al Qaisi said.
In addition to the fans, the number includes the teams, official delegations and journalists, Mr Al Qaisi added.
Iraq is hosting the biennial regional competition for the first time in more than four decades during which the country endured wars and diplomatic isolation as well as instability after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis hope that hosting the event will turn a new page in their country’s troubled history, boost relations with Gulf neighbours and represent a crucial step towards full national recovery.
They also hope to change Iraq’s image as an unsafe and unstable place to one capable of organising international events.
“The Gulf Cup is a message to international sports institutions that Iraq is a safe country,” Mr Al Sudani told state TV. “It has the capacity and capabilities to attract tournaments.”
For the first time in decades, residents of the Gulf states are on Iraqi streets and in markets and other public areas, not only in Basra but in other provinces such as Baghdad, Anbar and the Kurdistan region.
Their presence has created a festive mood in Basra and other cities as Iraqis mingle with them, singing, exchanging jokes and taking pictures.
As all the hotels in Basra are fully booked, Iraqis are hosting many of the fans in their houses or in tribal mudhifs — public halls where tribes mainly welcome guests and settle community affairs.
When the tournament was staged in Baghdad in 1979, the hosts were crowned champions. Iraq also won in 1984 and 1988.
Iraq has a chance to win a fourth championship after reaching the semi-finals. The team will play Qatar at Basra International Stadium on Monday for a place in the final on January 19, while Bahrain will play Oman at Al Minaa International Stadium.