ATHENS, Greece - The leaders of Iraq’s restored Olympic committee held out hopes Monday that the games could achieve what has so far proved elusive in their homeland: a pause in the bombings and street battles.
“It is possible,” said Tiras Odisho, director general of Iraq’s National Olympic Committee. “Iraqis are very sports-minded. When there is an important (soccer) match ... you don’t see any fighting in Baghdad until after the match ... So there might — there just might — be a cease-fire for the Olympic Games.”
The committee’s president, Ahmed al-Sammarai, also gave a cautious prediction that the 25-member Iraqi team could unify the battered country into a state of “almost cease-fire.”
But it appeared Iraq was moving in the other direction with the games opening on Friday.
Clashes raged in the holy city of Najaf between U.S. forces and militiamen with apparent loyalty to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who vowed to continue the insurgency “until the last drop of my blood has been spilled.” Near Baghdad, a car bombing killed six people and injured the apparent target, a deputy provincial governor.
On Saturday, a rocket landed close the Olympic Committee headquarters in Baghdad, killing at least one person. Al-Sammarai blamed foreign fighters for the attack, but gave no specific evidence.
Many of the Iraq athletes had to train abroad for security and better facilities.
“Our hope is to live in peace. ... This is the first step our 1,000 mile (journey) for Iraq sports,” said al-Sammarai, a former general and athlete who returned to Iraq last year after 20 years in exile.
The International Olympic Committee reinstated Iraq in February, opening the way for full status at the Athens Games.
The IOC suspended the Iraqi committee in May 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion. The IOC ethics commission confirmed allegations of abuse by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Odai, who reportedly maintained a jail and torture room in the basement of the national Olympic committee headquarters for athletes who fell out of favor.
Odai was killed in a shootout with U.S. troops in July 2003.
“We can play without any fear,” Odisho said. “We can shoot at the goal and miss and not be afraid.”
The core of the Iraqi team is its 18-member soccer team, which defied the odds and qualified for the games. The team’s German coach, Bernd Stange, resigned last month after being advised he could be in jeopardy if he returned to Iraq.
“I never got any direct threats,” he told The Associated Press from Germany. “But I was told by German authorities it was best if I left the country. ... The situation there is shocking and it’s amazing the team qualified for Athens.”
Iraqi athletes will also compete in weightlifting, judo, boxing, taekwondo, swimming, boxing and track and field. The team’s only woman, sprinter Al’aa Hikmat, is set for the 100 and 200 meters.
It’s the largest Iraqi Olympic team since 1988, and a huge jump from Sydney four years ago, when Iraq brought just four competitors.
“We want to prove to the whole world that there is a normal life in Iraq,” said boxer Najah Salah Ali, who competes in the 106-pound class.
Iraqi Olympic officials have also put a price on success: $25,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Iraq has only one medalist in Olympic history — a weightlifting bronze in 1960.
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