BAGHDAD, Iraq—The teenagers chasing a well-worn soccer ball in flip-flops and tattered loafers on a dusty concrete slab off Baghdad's Abu Nowas Street yell out the same things as kids playing sandlot sports in Bangkok, Barcelona and Brooklyn.
"He can't get past them." "Just shoot." And that most common of sports pleas, "Pass it to me. Pass it."
Everyone wants to be the star. Yet sports stardom in Iraq can be deadly.
Since the war began, Iraq's sports world has withered under the glare of religious extremists, sectarian bullies and gangsters who set their sights on those who rise above the crowd.
Iraq's Olympic committee is pushing ahead with plans for next year's Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. The national soccer team is on a path to qualify, and the Iraqis expect to send rowing and weightlifting teams.
But many top-tier athletes have fled, and those who've stayed behind too often end up missing or dead.
_Earlier this month, Waleed Mohammed, a deputy chairman of the Iraq Olympic Committee, was kidnapped and found murdered.
_Also this month, gunmen attacked former Iraqi national soccer-team standout Alla Ahmed. The assassination attempt fell short, but he was injured in the attack near a mosque in Basra.
_Last September, uniformed gunmen stormed the home of national soccer team player Ghanim Ghudayer and snatched him. He remains missing.
_Last July, national soccer-team coach Akram Ahmed Salman and his assistant resigned amid unending death threats. His two predecessors quit for the same reason.
_That same month, Mohammed Karim Abid Sahib was murdered while serving as coach of the national wrestling team.
_Last June, 30 people were kidnapped from a meeting of the Iraq Olympic Committee, among them Jamal Abdul Karim, the president of the tae kwon do association, who'd earlier denounced the kidnappings of 15 members of a tae kwon do team returning from a match in Jordan. "Terrorists know that sport is the one thing that has succeeded in Iraq," Karim said. The corpses of two bodyguards taken during the Olympic Committee kidnapping were found later. Several other people were released eventually, but not Karim. Still missing as well are the 15 tae kwon do team members.
_Last May, two tennis players and their coach were shot on the streets of Baghdad because they were wearing shorts on the way home from a workout. The coach was Sunni Muslim and the players were Shiite Muslim. Leaflets distributed by extremists warned the residents of Sunni-dominated neighborhoods against such immodest dress.
Iraqi sports long have been tinged with politics and brutality. Odai Hussein, the playboy son of Saddam Hussein, who ran the country's sports apparatus, tortured members of the national soccer team when their play displeased him. Soccer players have told how Odai had them whipped, dunked them in vats of sewage or threatened them with execution.
After Saddam was toppled, things were looking up. The International Olympic Committee lifted its suspension of Iraq and the soccer team made a gallant run through the 2004 Olympics, rallying spirits at home and raising hopes that better times awaited.
But they were short-lived. President Bush featured the Iraqi and Afghanistan flags in a re-election campaign ad that boasted "at this Olympics there will be two more free nations—and two fewer terrorist regimes." Players on the soccer team took offense.
Then as the country's insurgency grew and sectarian divisions became more pronounced and bloody, Iraq's athletes were caught in the crossfire.
Rower Hamza Jaber cited a bomb explosion 50 feet from his boat and a teammate hit in the foot by random gunfire for his decision to head to Australia to train.
When pictures of the national soccer team and its German coach standing alongside then-British Foreign Minister Jack Straw appeared in Baghdad newspapers, death threats followed. The coach has since been trying to find his former players refuge with European teams.
Iraq hasn't held a national soccer championship since the war. A recent game in Tal Afar in northern Iraq was lauded for the way it featured a Sunni team taking on a Shiite team in a friendly match. But before the war, a similar game more likely would have featured one district taking on another without notice given to the players' religious beliefs.
"The terrorists target all of Iraqi society, and the athletes are part of that," said Ahmad Hussein, a spokesman for the Iraq Olympic Committee. "The difficulties are very common."
Although people associated with sports appear targeted, the country can't afford to give them extra security.
"This is the only place where athletes are targets of insurgents and gunmen," said Iftikhar Juma, the head of the Iraqi Ping Pong Association. "Iraqi athletes are forced into the political process because they are targeted."
The boys on Abu Nowas Street play near townhouses that members of Saddam's Baath party once occupied. Today, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, live there.
The teenagers say they play most days because it's a way to fill the hours. They feel safe in their own neighborhood, although there are many places in Baghdad they dare not go.
"We just play by ourselves," 18-year-old Arkan Shakir said. "Everybody wants to play in the leagues, but we can't right now."
Then he went back to the game.
"Pass it," he said. "Pass it to me."
(Canon reports for The Kansas City Star. Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent in Baghdad.)