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Published: Thursday, 7/24/2008

Iraqi teams banned from Beijing Olympic game

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BAGHDAD The International Olympic Committee has upheld a ban on Iraqi teams at the Beijing Games, saying Thursday the government missed the deadline to address accusations of political interference.

The IOC decision culminates a drawn-out internal feud in Iraq that many see as an extension of Shiite payback to Sunnis who once held a cozy niche in Saddam Hussein's regime.

In May, the government dissolved the National Olympic Committee. Among the claims was it was illegitimate because it lacked a legal quorum but four members of the committee, including its chief, were kidnapped two years ago and their fates are unknown.

There is also a potential sectarian rift. Iraq's Youth and Sports Ministry is dominated by Shiites, while the NOC includes several holdovers from the Saddam-era Olympic Committee, once run by his feared eldest son, Odai.

The International Olympics Committee denounced the order as "serious interference" in what is supposed to be an independent body and demanded the government respect the NOC's autonomy.

"Clearly we'd very much like to have seen Iraq's athletes in Beijing," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said Thursday. "We are very disappointed that the athletes have been so ill-served by their own government's actions."

The Iraqi Olympic team was greeted with a roaring ovation at the opening ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004. That was the country's first Olympics after the fall of Saddam and Odai, who as head of the Iraqi Olympic committee tortured athletes who failed to reach his standards. Iraq's soccer team became one of the feel-good stories of those games when it made a surprising run to the semifinals.

Five Iraqi athletes were expected to compete this year in non-track and field sports archery, judo, rowing and weightlifting. Their places will be offered to athletes from other countries.

Basil Abdul-Mahdi, an adviser to the Iraqi minister for youth and sport, said the government never had any intention of reversing its decision and the ban was no surprise. He said Iraqi participation in Arab regional competitions would be unaffected.

"We will bring suit to defend our sports rights," Abdul-Mahdi said.

The IOC and Olympic Council of Asia jointly sent a letter Wednesday to Iraq's minister for youth and sport Jassem Mohammed Jaafar confirming Iraq's suspension "despite joint efforts.... over the past few months to find a positive solution with Iraqi authorities."

Iraq's government said after the June 4 suspension it wanted to meet with the IOC "to make its legitimate case."

It said the decision to dissolve the Olympic committee was based on "solid evidence of blatant corruption, lack of legitimate transparent electoral processes and accountability and absence of ratified legislation."

But IOC spokeswoman Davies said Thursday the Iraqi government was asked to come to Switzerland to discuss possible remedies "but (it) did not positively respond to the IOC's invitation."

She said the suspension destroyed progress made in Iraq's sporting community since the fall of Saddam in 2003.

Iraq's athletes are not the first to miss an Olympic Games because of government interference.

In the most recent case, Afghanistan was prevented from sending a team to the Sydney games in 2000 because of the Taliban regime's intervention in sports administration.



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