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Tuesday, July 29

Athletes seek new start for Iraq's scarred sports

By Andrea Stone | USA TODAY

BAGHDAD, Iraq - By most measures, Hassan Turki, a midfielder with Iraq`s national soccer team, had a great tournament last year in Qatar.

Scoring four goals during the competition in the Persian Gulf emirate, he was named the event`s best striker. One goal even came in a semifinal against the United Arab Emirates. But in that same game, Turki also missed a penalty kick. At the time, he thought little of it.

But after returning to Iraq, Turki and another player were arrested, blindfolded and taken to a prison where they were held for 10 days and forced to do non-stop exercises at all hours.

When they were finally released, ''They told us, `Let that be a lesson to you not to repeat such mistakes again,` '' Turki recalled.

The striker, now 21, was lucky. Unlike many of his teammates, he wasn`t beaten or tortured. But the ordeal took a toll.

''I have psychological problems now,'' Turki said recently at the Al Karkh Sports Club, a gathering place for athletes in Baghdad`s upscale Mansour neighborhood. ''There is always that voice inside that reminds me of the punishment and fear. I cannot get rid of it. I hope with the collapse of the regime, I will improve.''

So do thousands of other Iraqi athletes. Scarred by years of threats, torture, imprisonment and extortion at the hands of Saddam Hussein`s older son, Odai, the Iraqi sports community may require as much rebuilding as this country`s political system and electrical grid. Odai, and his younger brother, Qusai, were killed by U.S. forces in a firefight in the northern city of Mosul last week, but that did not sweep away the damage done to Iraqi sports.

The country`s sports teams have been under international sanctions since the country invaded Kuwait in 1990, the spark for the first gulf war.

As a result, Iraq has not had an official team at the summer Olympics since 1990. In May, the International Olympic Committee responded to allegations that athletes had been tortured and dissolved the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

''It is a shame on the IOC that they always closed their ears to the complaints and suffering of the Iraqi athletes,'' says Haitham Al-Jnabi, who is focusing on sports as a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council. He and others say IOC officials had been warned for years about abuses but only acted after the coalition toppled Saddam`s regime.

Plans to rebuild

Top U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer said in an interview with USA TODAY that a new Iraqi Olympic Committee would be formed by September. He also said Iraq will have an official team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Although the national soccer team won`t have time to qualify for the Games, 12 Iraqi men will take part: two each in boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, swimming, fencing and shooting.

''We had to purge the Baathists out of all these (sports) federations and work from the bottom up,'' said Bremer, referring to the Saddam party loyalists who have been thrown out of all government agencies. Despite all the problems facing Iraq, Bremer has taken a personal interest in reviving the country`s sports programs. A former triathlete who jogs most mornings in the oppressive Baghdad heat, Bremer set up a sports advisory committee composed of retired athletes after arriving in May. The panel will help rebuild Iraq`s local and national sports federations, a prerequisite for lifting IOC sanctions and regaining membership.

Odai was installed by his father in 1985 as chairman of Iraq`s Olympic Committee and head of the Ministry for Youth and Sports. The London-based human rights group Indict charged in December that the Iraqi Olympic Committee took part in the looting of Kuwait. Odai also was accused of stealing money paid to Iraq by the IOC and FIFA, the international soccer federation. Indeed, coalition officials consider the sports ministries so corrupt that they are among the few government agencies from which no former members will be asked back.

Paydays for Odai

Under Odai, sports were starved for funds. He paid most athletes, even stars, just $3 a month. Players who could get lucrative contracts in other countries were either blocked from signing deals or forced to kick back as much as 70 percent of their salaries to Odai and the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

Salem Hashim, 37, a former star defender on Iraq`s soccer team and now a trainer at the Al Zawra soccer club, was an Odai favorite and never suffered the kind of torture others did. Still, he ''always was on the brink of being punished. I am happy because the pressure on Iraqi sports has been relieved with Odai`s death.''

This month about 2,000 Iraqi athletes will begin receiving monthly payments of $100 from the coalition, which has budgeted $500,000 for salaries, travel and equipment.

Despite its vast oil wealth, Iraq has only one Olympic-sized stadium, an outdated facility built in the 1960s. Training centers, when they exist, are crumbling. Athletes have been forced to train abroad in Iran, Jordan, Spain and, in the case of Iraq`s archery team, at the U.S. Olympic training camp at Chula Vista, Calif.

Iraq`s 40-member national youth soccer team has only two balls to use at practices. A sports warehouse controlled by Odai was looted after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops. ''Now we see our supplies being sold at the market,'' says Khaldoun Ibrahim, 18, a midfielder.

But it is Odai`s personal persecution of Iraq`s athletes that set him apart even from his father. Odai punished and humiliated athletes merely if he believed they performed poorly.

In Iraq, athletes literally played as if their lives depended on it.

''They played with fear because they knew if they didn`t win, he would torture them,'' says Ahmed Al-Samarrai, an Iraqi exile who recently returned here to help piece the country`s sports programs back together. ''It brought down all Iraqi sports in terms of their technical level.''

Says Al-Jnabi: ''Odai was responsible for killing the Iraqi sports spirit. He was always looking for personal glory in sports. That kept all athletes slaves to maintain his pride and personal ambition.''

Athletic jails

Women`s sports totally collapsed in the 1990s because most female athletes feared coming into the clutches of Saddam`s son, coalition sports officials say. Odai`s seventh-floor office in the Iraqi Olympic Committee building was notorious as a place where he took women for sex, with or without their consent. Officials say it will take years for women to return to the playing field and reach Olympic caliber again.

Besides Odai`s sex lair, the headquarters of Iraq`s Olympic Committee, now a bombed-out shell, included an underground prison equipped with torture devices such as a steel sarcophagus studded with nails inside. At least two prisons in Baghdad had special athlete cellblocks.

Jailers often treated allegedly lagging players in ways certain to hurt, not improve, the athletes` performances on the field. After shaving their heads to humiliate them, athletes were hung upside down and the soles of their feet whipped. They were buried in hot sand up to their necks. Their fingers or ears were amputated. Electric shocks were applied to their skin. And, in the case of soccer players, they were forced to kick concrete balls.

Hashim Khuamais and Ziad Tareq, both members of Iraq`s national soccer team, are typical. Just before a semifinal match at the 2000 Asian soccer tournament in Lebanon, an Odai henchman told both men they would go to prison if they lost to Japan. The team lost.

After returning to Iraq, the men were arrested and sent to a special athletes section of the Al-Radawniyah prison here.

Khuamais, 34, the team`s goalkeeper from 1993 to 2000, was debased by jailers who made him jump at a ceiling fan as they yelled, ''You`re a goalkeeper. Catch the fan!''

''I am very ashamed and hurt,'' said Khuamais, who has trouble talking about his ordeal three years later. ''After that, I quit.'' But as he often did, Odai refused to allow athletes to do what they wanted. Khuamais was forced to continue playing even though his heart was no longer in it.

Stages of torture

At only 22, Tareq, a defender, has been to prison five times. After a while, he recognized a pattern to the punishment.

''The first stage of the torture is the reception, when you are given a choice of which plastic cable you will be beaten with. Then you are beaten 15 to 20 times. The reception is over. In the next stage, you are thrown into knee-deep sewer water and told to swim,'' he says. Tareq was dragged bare-chested across hot asphalt. Made to run barefoot over broken glass and gravel.

When it was time to leave, he says, ''The farewell party is a beating.''

Punishment wasn`t always game-related.

When Haider Abid Ali, 35, a champion swimmer, refused to join Odai`s sports club, he was banned from every swimming pool in Iraq. The swimmer trained in the Tigris River instead and went on to become Iraq`s freestyle swimming champion in 1985. This so incensed Odai that he brought charges against Ali saying he had incited an anti-government demonstration. The swimmer was sentenced to life in Abu Gharib prison. He served six years before being released during a general amnesty in 1991. Ali went on to coach a champion swim team and win a medal for himself in a race in Tikrit, Saddam`s hometown. Ali was arrested and shot in the leg by a prison guard. ''We should always start fresh and forget about the past,'' Ali says stoically today.

Tareq, the soccer player, recalls how his team was invited to pose for pictures with Odai. At 6-4, Tareq towered over Odai. ''The next day, I was taken and flogged 20 times'' for being taller, says Tareq, who plans to leave Iraq soon to play professionally in Germany or Scandinavia.

Teenagers weren`t exempt from abuse. When four members of the national youth soccer team failed to attend a sports committee election last year, they were sent to a detention center for nine days.

''We were internally damaged, and we are still scared and completely shaken. They planted fear in us,'' says Ali Abbas, who, like the others, was 17 at the time.

Although never an Olympic powerhouse - Iraq has won only one medal, a bronze, at the 1960 Rome games for weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz - it was devastated during Odai`s rule. Many players defected. Among the hardest hit was the national soccer team. Samarrai notes that Iraq once had one of the best soccer teams in Asia and the Arab world but faces years of rebuilding.

An Iraqi wrestler finished fifth in the 1988 Olympics. But defections and torture have decimated that team. ''We need years of preparation to get back to where we were,'' says Louay S.M. Jawad, 47, president of the Iraqi Wrestling Federation.

Jawad was jailed for more than a month in 2001 after an Iraqi wrestler defected following a tournament in Syria. A year later, he was thrown in prison again after some wrestlers lost their passports. United Nations weapons inspectors were roaming the country at the time, and Jawad says he was moved to a different place every day for a week.

''Sport should be something you enjoy,'' he said, ''not something to be punished for.''