By Amit R. Paley and Amy Shipley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 25, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 24 -- The International Olympic Committee has banned most of Iraq's seven-member team from participating in the Beijing Games because of concerns that the Iraqi government has interfered politically in the leadership of the country's Olympic movement.
The international committee notified Iraqi officials in a letter dated July 23 that the athletes will not be allowed to participate because a deadline for registering most athletes had passed. It remains technically possible for two Iraqi track-and-field athletes to participate in the 2008 Games, but Iraqi and International Olympic Committee officials said that outcome is unlikely.
"Iraq will not be represented at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and Iraqi athletes will not be able to compete at these Games," the letter said, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post. "We deeply regret this outcome which severely harms the Iraqi Olympic and Sports Movement and the Iraqi athletes."
The decision was viewed with bitterness and dismay in a nation whose obsession with sports is one of the few commonalities among Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and other sectarian and ethnic groups.
"We feel like this is an unjust attack on Iraq at a time when we need the world's support," said Maher al-Hilfi, 34, a Baghdad vegetable salesman and self-described sports fanatic who spent the day commiserating with fellow fans. "Sports is the only thing that brings unity to the Iraqis and brings us happiness -- and now it has been taken away."
The dispute between Iraq and the IOC began when the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved on May 20 to replace the members of the Iraqi Olympic committee, which included Iraqis of various ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. The new committee is made up almost entirely of Shiites, according to two members of the disbanded panel.
The new committee's secretary general, Sameer al-Hashemi, said the members of the disbanded committee were accused of corruption and of winning their positions through rigged elections, though he declined to provide specifics.
Bashar Mustafa, acting president of the disbanded Iraqi Olympic committee, disputed the allegations and said they were politically motivated.
"If we have done something wrong, why haven't we been charged with a crime or arrested?" said Mustafa, who has led the committee since several members, including the president, were kidnapped two years ago and are presumed dead.
The IOC refused to recognize the new group and temporarily suspended the Iraqi Olympic committee on June 4. In a statement at the time, the international committee denounced "ongoing political interference by the government within the sports movement in Iraq."
In a statement Thursday, the IOC said the Olympic Charter calls for the suspension of a national committee if government interference causes the agency's work "to be hampered."
The disbanded 11-member panel included five Sunnis, four Shiites, one Kurd and one Christian, according to Mustafa. He and former committee member Haider Ali Lazim said the group appointed by Maliki is made up of six Shiites and one Sunni.
"There is clearly a sectarian dimension to this decision," said Mustafa, a Kurd. Lazim is a Shiite.
Hashemi declined to comment on the background of the current and former committee members. But he said the Iraqi government has the right to control its Olympics and sports programs as a sovereign nation and will not reverse its position. He said the former committee's poor performance forced Maliki to act to improve the nation's athletes.
"When the government sees that the competitiveness of athletes in Iraq is so terrible, it has to do something to change that," he said. "In the short term, this decision could make confusion and worries for Iraqi sports. But in the long term, it will be better for Iraq's sports."
The seven-member Iraqi Olympic team consisted of two athletes competing in track and field, two in rowing, and one each in judo, archery and weightlifting.
But the deadline for submitting the names of athletes in every sport except track and field was Wednesday, meaning that five of those seven will not be able to compete.
Giselle Davies, an IOC spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview from the group's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, that the two track-and-field athletes can still compete if the Iraqi government promises in writing not to interfere with the national Olympic committee by July 31, the deadline for track-and-field submission.
Both sides, however, said it is doubtful that Iraq will reverse its decision.
"The IOC very sadly has now to acknowledge that it is likely there will be no Iraqi presence at the Beijing Olympic Games, despite our best efforts," she wrote in an e-mail. "We are very disappointed."
The committee had invited Iraqi officials to come to Lausanne to discuss possible solutions, but Hashemi said they will not do so.
This would not be the first time a country's athletes have been barred from the Games. Iraq had been banned during parts of Saddam Hussein's rule, and countries such as Afghanistan and South Africa have also been blocked from taking part.
Across Iraq on Thursday, sports fans said they were crushed that their athletes may not compete. In 2004, Iraqis were captivated by their men's soccer team, which placed fourth at the Athens Games.
"I feel so sorry and sad that we are not going to participate in the Olympic Games that we long for every four years," said Furat Jassim, 35, a resident of Basra.
But Hashemi said he does not think the country's exclusion is a huge loss. "I'm sure our athletes wouldn't win anything, even if they could go," he said.
Shipley reported from Miami. Special correspondents Qais Mizher and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and Aahad Ali in Basra contributed to this report.