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Iraq soccer team qualifies for Olympics


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Soccer win boosts Iraqis

May 18, 2004

WHEN gunfire erupted in Iraq's capital at the weekend it didn't signal an attack or an invasion - these were shots of joy as fans celebrated the stunning success of the Iraqi soccer team in qualifying for the Athens Olympics.

Needing a win - and some luck - the Iraqis got both. They beat Saudi Arabia 3-1 in Jordan while Kuwait and Oman drew 0-0 to send Iraq to the Olympics as the third and final qualifier from the Asian region.

It was Iraq's first Olympic soccer qualification since 1988 in Seoul, an astonishing achievement less than three months after the country's reinstatement by the IOC.

"Thank God that we won in these circumstances. The shots fired in Baghdad were in joy rather than anger," said team member Sarmid Rashid, 22. "I say congratulations to the Iraqi people."

It is a small piece of good news for a country in turmoil, still dealing with bombings and ambushes more than a year after US-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"It's a very big victory for us to qualify for the Olympics," said Haidar Abed Razzaq, 22. "In spite of all the circumstances in Iraq, we qualified again after 16 years."

The Iraqi players and supporters threw a party at the saucer-shaped Shaab Stadium, where Saddam Hussein's image once loomed on a giant billboard over a sea of broken and dusty orange, green and yellow seats, and where the US military operated a base for months.

Paul Bremer, the top US civilian commander in Iraq, flew to the stadium to congratulate the team, emerging from an Army Black Hawk helicopter with a bevy of guards wearing flak jackets and carrying machine guns.

"What a great game," Bremer said of Iraq's win over Saudi Arabia.

Like the rest of the country, Bremer said he was nervous until the third goal. "Then I knew: Iraq is back," Bremer said.

The political impact of the win wasn't lost on those present at the celebration either. Soccer - Iraq's national sport - was turned into a notorious enterprise by Hussein's murderous son Uday.

Players were routinely beaten and tortured for miskicks on the field.

And soccer, with other sports, was used by Uday to bypass international sanctions and funnel cash to his business enterprises.

Midfielder Hayder Abdel Qader, 22, said he hoped the team would do well at the Olympics.

"All the players want to do something good for themselves and for the people," he said.

The soccer team will join six other Iraqi Olympians: a boxer, a weight lifter, a swimmer, a tae kwon do athlete, a wrestler and a runner.

The Daily Telegraph

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I am happy for these athletes after what they have been through:

Olympic dreams

Players return to Iraqi soccer fields despite past, problems

Posted: Tuesday May 20, 2003 9:22 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) -- After long years of mistreatment by officials, economic hardship and a devastating war, Iraq's national soccer team is making a fresh start.

Imprisonment and beatings awaited players who lost matches in Sadam Hussein's Iraq where his much-feared eldest son, Uday, ran the soccer federation and the national Olympic committee.

Now, the first test for Iraqi sports in the post-Saddam era starts in September with the soccer qualifiers for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Regardless of the battered equipment, a lack of decent stadiums and no wages for four months, 27 players have started training for two hours a day under Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad at the field beside the damaged and looted building of al-Kerkh Club.

"Despite difficult conditions as a result of the absence of government and sports authorities, we summoned players for training in preparation for the Olympic Games qualifiers," Hamad said.

The Western Asia qualifiers, originally scheduled for April, have been postponed with Iraq's opening game against Vietnam on Sept. 10.

"It is going to be a hard task to qualify but the team is a highly spirited team, which is able to compete with other teams," said Hamad whose side are made up of players from the junior team, winners of the Asian youth title last year.

The major problems hampering their preparations were funding, transport and accommodation for players from provinces outside Baghdad, he said.

The headquarters of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and most of the country's sports facilities were damaged and looted during the havoc in the country following the end of the U.S.-led war that toppled Hussein last month.

Hamad blamed the modest performance of Iraq's soccer team over recent years on economic sanctions and the psychological stress on the squad, who played under fear of punishment from Uday.

Soccer players and other athletes have testified that Uday tortured them for losing. He put them in prison for days or months at a time and had them beaten with iron bars.

He also chained players to walls and made them stay in contorted positions for days or dragged them along pavements until their backs were bloodied, then had them dunked in sewage to ensure the wounds became infected, players have said.

"After each match the assistant coach counted every player's mistakes and each mistake meant a whip, which was later increased to two whips," former striker Samir Kazim said earlier this month.

"One time I was hit 32 times on the soles of my feet along with 15 other teammates for bringing electrical devices from Duhouk where we played a match," Kazim said.

Exiled former national soccer captain Abed Kadhim said last month that Uday would sometimes have the head of every player forcibly shaved, as a sign of humiliation, if they lost.

Hamad said his young team could achieve good results if facilities improved, saying there was a need to build new stadiums and increase funds allocated for sports.

"Despite huge financial resources of the committee, allocations for sports fields were very meagre," said Hamad, the son of a wealthy landowning family from the ancient city of Samarra.

"We raised the issue of building a new stadium with the Olympic committee and the answer was always that the country is in a state of war and is under sanctions," he added.

Iraq has 150 divisional teams but the People's Stadium in Baghdad has the only field that meets international standards.

The stadium is a reminder of better days. It was inaugurated in the early 1960s with a match between Iraq and Portugal's Benfica.

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Son of Saddam

As Iraq's top Olympic official, Uday Hussein is accused of the torture and murder of athletes who fail to win

By Don Yaeger

As he stood at the double-door entrance to the office of Iraqi National Olympic Committee president Uday Hussein, the boxer knew what awaited on the other side. He had just returned from a Gulf States competition, where he had been knocked out in the first round. Now it was time to pay the price.

A former double for Uday says Iraq's Olympic programs have been destroyed since Saddam gave his son control in 1984 and the brutal punishment of athletes began. AP Photo

Inside the yellow-and-blue office, Uday, the older of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's two sons, paced the floor, waving his expensive Cuban cigar and glaring out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Baghdad. "He was yelling about how Iraq should not be embarrassed by its athletes," recalls Latif Yahia, employed for nearly five years as Uday's body double -- he would stand in for Uday on occasions that were deemed a security threat -- and one of his closest associates to have escaped to the West. "He kept saying, 'This is my Iraq. Embarrassing Iraq embarrasses me.'"

With a wave of Uday's arm the manacled boxer was led into the room by Iraqi secret service. Sitting behind a dark wood desk beneath an oversized portrait of himself, Uday began his tirade. "In sport you can win or you can lose. I told you not to come home if you didn't win." His voice rising, he walked around the desk and gave the boxer a lesson. "This is how you box," he screamed as he threw a left and a right straight to the fighter's face. Blood dribbled from the athlete's nose as Uday launched another round of punches. Then, using the electric prod he was famous for carrying, Uday jolted the boxer in the chest.

Blood was streaming from a cut above the boxer's eye when Uday ordered his guards to fetch a straight razor. The boxer cried out as Uday held the razor to his throat, and as he moved the blade to the fighter's forehead, Uday laughed. He then shaved the man's eyebrows, an insult to Muslim males. "Take him downstairs and finish the job," Uday screamed.

Says Yahia, "They took him to the basement of the Olympic building. It has a 30-cell prison where athletes -- and anyone else who is out of favor with Uday -- are beaten and tortured. That was the last I ever heard of that boxer."

THE BUTCHER'S BOY , as he is sometimes called, is reputed to be the most brutal member of Iraq's notorious ruling family. As an infant he reportedly played with disarmed grenades. By 10 he was accompanying his father to the torture chamber at Qasr-al-Nihayyah (the Palace of the End, where many political enemies, including deposed King Faisal II, were killed) to watch Saddam deal with dissidents. By 16 he bragged of committing his first murder, telling classmates he had killed a teacher who had upbraided him in front of a girlfriend.

For nearly 20 years Uday Hussein has been the most powerful force in Iraq's athletic hierarchy. In 1984, when Uday was 20, Saddam handed his son the reins of both the country's Olympic committee and its soccer federation, hoping Uday could help rebuild the spirit of the nation's youth while also proving himself a worthy successor to his father. The Iran-Iraq war, which would drag on for eight years and lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis, was demoralizing Iraqi youth. Success in sports, Saddam thought, could lift their spirits and restore national pride.

"Saddam's plan didn't work," says Issam Thamer al-Diwan, a former Iraqi volleyball player who now lives in the United States and carries a list of 52 athletes he claims have been murdered by the Hussein family. "Iraqi sports are worse today than ever. Our teams used to win. There was much pride in playing for your country. But Uday never understood pride, only fear. He was never an athlete. He thought he could use his father's sadistic approach to improve performance. He has failed."

In fact Iraq, once an Asian sports force that sent 46 athletes to the 1980 Summer Olympics, now rivals Liechtenstein in terms of athletic insignificance. Iraq sent just four athletes to the 2000 Games in Sydney. "People don't want to play because they [are afraid] to lose," says Sabah Mohammed, Iraq's former national basketball coach, who fled to London in 1999 and claims that nine members of his wife's family have been executed by the Hussein regime. "Can you blame them? No one wants to speak out against Uday." (SI's attempts to reach Uday for comment through the Iraqi permanent mission to the United Nations were unsuccessful.)

Uday's penchant for violence has long been an open secret among international athletic officials. Amnesty International reported in 2001 that Uday had ordered the hand of a security officer at his Olympic headquarters to be chopped off five years earlier, after the man was accused of stealing sports equipment that was missing (but later turned up). In 1997 FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, sent two investigators to Baghdad to question members of the Iraqi national team who'd allegedly had their feet caned by Uday's henchmen after losing a World Cup qualifying match to Kazakhstan. The investigators spoke only to people whom Uday had selected. The result: a report exonerating Uday.

"Did the torture of those players happen?" asks Sharar Haydar, a longtime Iraqi soccer star who participated in 40 international matches for the national team and was a teammate of many of the victims. "Absolutely. But when you interview athletes who are under Uday's control, what else do you expect them to say?

"I know what they went through," adds Haydar, who escaped from Iraq in 1998 and now lives in London. "I was tortured four times after matches. One time, after a friendly [match] against Jordan in Amman that we lost 2-0, Uday had me and three teammates taken to the prison. When we arrived, they took off our shirts, tied our feet together and pulled our knees over a bar as we lay on our backs. Then they dragged us over pavement and concrete, pulling the skin off our backs. Then they pulled us through a sandpit to get sand in our backs. Finally, they made us climb a ladder and jump into a vat of raw sewage. They wanted to get our wounds infected. The next day, and for every day we were there, they beat our feet. My punishment, because I was a star player, was 20 [lashings] per day. I asked the guard how he could ever forgive himself. He laughed and told me if he didn't do this, Uday would do it to him. Uday made us athletes an example. He believed that if people saw he was not afraid to beat a hero, that they would live in greater fear."

Ahmed Kadoim, a FIFA-recognized referee who fled Iraq in December, tells a similar tale of torture at Uday's hands after he refused to fix a soccer game last May. "I was the referee of a match between Al-Shorta and the club of the air force," Kadoim says. "I was told that Shorta should win, but I refused to fix the match. It ended at 2-2. I was taken by Uday's men to Al-Radwaniya prison, where they used hoses and a cane to beat me three times a day. My punishment was 10 beatings each time. When I was bleeding, they forced me into a pool of sewage. The guards laughed and said, 'You should have let them win.' I still am in pain nearly a year later."

"Saddam is brutal and occasionally predictable," a senior U.S. State Department official told SI. "Uday is brutal and unpredictable." It may be revisionist history, but the official says Uday's bloodthirsty nature worked to his father's advantage during the Gulf War. "You should not discount the fact that when we invaded Iraq in 1991 that Uday's presence, and the possibility at that time that he might be the next ruler of Iraq, played a role in our decision to leave Saddam in place. There was a lot of unease, and there was no plan for what would come after Saddam. The possibility that it could have been one of his sons was unacceptable." Indeed, Uday, along with his brother, Qusay, top a list of Iraqi officials who the Bush Administration has said will be tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity after an American-led attack on Iraq, according to published reports.

"Two stories about Uday leap to mind," the State Department official told SI. "The first is the caning of the feet -- called falaka -- of the soccer team. That form of torture is well known to be used by Saddam's forces as well. They beat the soles of the feet, which breaks a lot of the smaller bones, causes massive swelling and leaves victims unable to walk for a while. There were also reports that after a loss Uday forced the volleyball team, which was made up of taller athletes, to remain in a room he had constructed with a five-foot-high ceiling. He built the room so small that not all of them could sit at the same time. The only way they could fit was by having half of them standing and leaning over while the other half were sitting with their knees in their chests. He considered this a motivational technique. There was always a psychological element to the kind of torture Uday employed. You are supposed to play like tall players, so feel what it is like to be small. For the soccer players, you are supposed to be fast and quick, so I am going to beat your feet and ruin your livelihood. That was his thinking."

After years of Uday's abuse, it came as little surprise to the international community when he was the target of an assassination attempt in December 1996. Uday was driving to a party in a two-car caravan with bodyguards when gunmen peppered his car with submachine gun fire. Uday was hit by eight bullets and was rushed to a hospital. No one was arrested for the crime, leading experts on Iraq to believe that a member of Uday's family -- possibly his brother -- had masterminded the attack. The 6'1", athletically built Uday survived, but he was partially paralyzed. Today he uses a wheelchair in private and limps with a cane in public. In the years since the assassination attempt Saddam has tended to favor Qusay as his successor.

AS U.S. AND British forces sit on the borders of Iraq poised for invasion, Uday Hussein's name is near the top of the Pentagon's list of the Filthy 40 -- the close associates of Saddam targeted for war-crime trials. Yet Uday remains in place, unchallenged, as his country's Olympic leader.

"This man has no business using the Olympic rings to give him credibility," says Charles Forrest, CEO of INDICT, a U.S.-government-funded human rights group based in London. "That the Olympic community, which has known about the atrocities of Uday for years, has taken no action is a black eye for the organization. The IOC is in a morally indefensible position here."

In December, INDICT filed a complaint with the IOC asking that Iraq be expelled from the Olympic community. Attached to the complaint were sworn statements from several Iraqi athletes detailing torture and imprisonment on orders from Uday. In February the IOC agreed to investigate Uday's behavior. As of last week, however, none of the athletes who had given sworn statements for the INDICT complaint had been contacted by the IOC.

"[iOC leaders] have tried to call the timing of our complaint suspicious and suggest it is part of an anti-Saddam agenda," says Forrest. "The real question should be, Why didn't you do something about this years ago? It is not as if we've uncovered something no one has ever heard of, and they know it. It almost seems [that they're thinking] that if they wait long enough, the U.S. will invade and they won't have to deal with this issue."

IOC president Jacques Rogge acknowledged last week that his organization received the complaint and says it is in the hands of the ethics committee. But IOC member Richard Pound says that it is "important to remember these are just allegations, and you have to make sure this is not all tied to the Iraq-U.S. dispute, that we are not being used for propaganda. You just never know."

"That disgusts me that someone would say that," says Haydar, the former soccer star. "I wish they would run their hands over our scars, see the pain in our eyes and float in raw sewage. Then there would be no questions."

"The problem for the IOC is going to be when Saddam is overthrown and people walk into the Olympic headquarters and see the torture chamber and the blood on the floor," Forrest says. "What will they say then?"

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