Soccer Offensive in Iraq

There's a new battlefield for American soldiers in Iraq: the soccer field. And some of their opponents are probably the same guys that were shooting at them last year.

It's all part of a campaign to change the perceptions Iraqis have of Americans and win their support.

Two weeks ago, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division started to play a series of soccer matches against local teams in the villages of Kirkuk province, northern Iraq.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Christopher Venek called it a "different approach." He told ABC News that by removing their body armor and competing on the field, U.S. soldiers hoped to be seen by Iraqis "as fellow human beings. ... Otherwise, the people never see you as anything but a soldier."

On the day the American team played in the village of Multaka, Mayor Abu Saif said the strategy was working.

"It strengthens the relations between us and the coalition forces," he told ABC News.

Many of the players on the Iraqi teams are made up of members of Sons of Iraq, a group composed of former insurgents. More than 200 have successfully joined the reconciliation program since it began in the area last January.

The soccer games are being played in the Hawijah district, an area that was once a hotbed of insurgency.

Venek remembers the bad old days, when his men battled with al Qaeda as soon as they arrived in Iraq last September.

"Every time you went outside of the Forward Operating Base, it was IED attacks daily, indirect fire," he said. "I had five noncommissioned officers who were wounded before we even assumed responsibility."

Back then, there were an average of two to three attacks per day on U.S. forces.

However, the U.S. military said al Qaeda has since been defeated in the area. The Hawijah district has seen a 90 percent decrease in violent attacks on American troops and civilians: There are now only two to three per month against U.S. troops.

The strategy of hiring local Sunnis to carry out security has, for the moment, reaped dividends. The aim of creating those employment opportunities, according to Venek, was "to take away the incentive of the insurgency paying individuals who really aren't interested in their message but looking for a pay check to feed the family."

The purpose of the soccer games was to build on that success. But it was still a tough call for Venek and his men of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.

On June 4, the unit lost three soldiers in a close-quarters firefight against al Qaeda members.

"It was a tough loss", Venek said. "Our guys fought well, but we took some casualties."

After those losses, there was some debate about whether the soldiers should go ahead with the soccer games.

"I was torn," Venek said. "Are we sending the wrong message?"

In the end, it was his soldiers who silenced his doubts.

"They decided that the best way to honor the memory of our fallen is to show the enemy that our mission continues," Venek said.

Venek is a veteran of the Iraq conflict. In the 2003 invasion, he was part of a Joint Special Operations task force that carried out raids in the western desert. And in April of that year, he was the operations officer for the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

Soccer, however, is not his game. Baseball and basketball are the sports he grew up with. The same applies to his soccer team. Security gains in the area have not been replicated on the field of play.

As Iraqi player Raad Hassan told ABC News, "The Americans aren't bad, but our team is better."

That proved to be something of an understatement. The U.S. team went down 8-0 against the Multaka village side. In the first two games of the series, the men of the U.S. Army conceded 10 goals and scored only two.

Undeterred, they plan to organize a tournament championship next month that brings together all the teams they've played.

After the Multaka game, American goalkeeper Staff Sgt. Paul Roberts told ABC News that it's taking part that counts.

"Win or lose," he said, "it doesn't really matter."

Venek ruefully agreed, although he conceded that his men are finding it hard to match up to the Iraqi teams.

"Of course, maybe, we picked the wrong sport," Venek said. "They seem to be so good at soccer."