BAGHDAD, Iraq—When Iraqis fill the 20,000-seat stadium at the al Zawra'a athletic club Friday to watch the al Zawra'a and Police Academy soccer clubs face off in the first major sporting event since the bombing of Baghdad, it will be more than a welcome break from the aftermath of war.
It also will kick off Iraq's effort to reclaim its national pastime.
After nearly 20 years under the brutal leadership of Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Odai, Iraq's Olympic committee and its soccer federation are in shambles, the result of years of fear, torture, imprisonment and beatings delivered just because players lost a game.
"Odai Hussein set soccer back 10 years in Iraq, because of his tyranny. It was not a democracy," said Karim Mohamed, 36, a manager of the al Zawra'a club. "Now the players, instead of being afraid of everything, they can be free. From now on, soccer is for their souls, their minds."
Well-known national and international players who know Odai's favorite punishment firsthand—caning the feet—will be participating and watching closely.
Practicing Thursday was Laith Hussein, the captain of Iraq's national team and a star player who has been imprisoned, beaten and televised playing soccer with a shaved head, one of the many humiliations Odai inflicted on his athletes.
"It will be a new era for soccer in Iraq now, just like when someone is thirsty and someone gives him water, or just like a new baby," said Laith Hussein, 33, who's no relation to Saddam's family. "I cannot remember all the torture. We lost many matches in the national team and he put the entire team in prison. They shaved my head; to remember that is enough."
Last week, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, at the time the top civilian administrator in Iraq, dissolved the infamous Iraq Olympic Committee. Its looted headquarters in eastern Baghdad is burned out and stripped of many instruments of torture.
The American senior adviser to the Ministry of Youth, which oversees sports, is trying to organize a process that will lead to a reconstituted Iraqi Olympic committee purged of cronies from the old regime.
"We will be rebuilding a new national Youth Ministry, which employed approximately 3,000 people," said the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance official, who asked not to be named. "In the vast majority of cases, those people will probably not be invited back because the Youth Ministry was used for Baath Party recruitment training, spying activity, keeping records on parents and teachers, and that's not the kind of youth ministry that has any place in a free Iraq."
The official said 15 out of perhaps 20 to 30 distinguished athletes, trainers and community organizers had been identified to help assemble a new committee.
Among the notables is one of Iraq's most famous soccer players, Ahmed Radhi Amish, who returned to the country Thursday from the Arab Federation for Sports conference in Saudi Arabia with good news.
"We will return to the Arab federation for football, and we have been invited to the championships in Saudi Arabia in August," Radhi said as he arrived at the al Zawra'a club to watch the team practice. "Now we are free, and nobody is thinking about how they're going to be punished."
Iraq also has the help of the Federation of International Football Associations, which has postponed the first and second rounds of qualifying games for the World Cup to September and October to accommodate the war-torn country.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SOCCER