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Iraqi PM welcomes FIFA decision to lift ban on Iraqi stadiums

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi welcomed a decision from soccer's world governing body FIFA to lift a ban on hosting competitive international soccer matches at stadiums in three Iraqi cities.

Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people and the sports public on the lifting of the ban, which he said in a statement was the result of the "security and stability" of the country.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced the ban's lifting on stadiums in Basra, Karbala and Erbil at the FIFA Council Meeting in Bogota on Friday.

"In these three cities, international matches will be allowed to be played as far as FIFA is concerned," Infantino told reporters.

The three cities had been hosting friendlies throughout the last year as a test run.

But FIFA has not yet approved an application by Iraq to host matches in the capital Baghdad. Infantino said the request needed further study.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) also welcomed FIFA's decision on Saturday.

"This is a significant moment in shaping the future of football in Iraq," AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said in a statement.

Earlier this month, two AFC Cup (the region's second tier knockout competition) matches involving Iraqi clubs were postponed until next month in the hope of playing them in the country should FIFA lift the ban. The AFC Cup matches involving Al Zawraa and Bahraini side Manama Club and Air Force Club's home game against Malkiya of Bahrain could now be played in April, the AFC statement added.

Iraq has largely been starved of international matches on home soil since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when FIFA banned them citing security concerns.

The ban stayed in place after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein. It was intermittently lifted only to be reimposed, because of enduring security concerns, most recently the war against Islamic State.

Iraq has played its home matches in Iran, Jordan or Doha. However, the country has held a handful of friendlies, including a Feb. 28 exhibition match against Saudi Arabia in Basra.

Iraq will host Qatar and Syria for a friendly tournament on March 21 in Basra.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mark Potter)