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Iraqis work to rebuild national sports scene

BAGHDAD, Iraq—With hopes of resurrecting competitive sports in this battered nation, sportsmen from 13 of Baghdad's athletic clubs will meet Wednesday to create a new Olympics committee and reorganize the local leagues.

Beyond establishing a new structure for sports here, they also hope to rebuild clubhouses and playing fields and raise money for equipment, coaches' salaries and travel abroad.

Iraq has not won an Olympic medal since 1960 and during the years of Baathist rule, sports became entangled in Iraq's security apparatus. Creating a new, and purer, brand of sports is the preoccupation of many in the clubs throughout Baghdad.

But as with everything else in this turbulent land, much delicate negotiation will be required.

"We are trying to form a new network," said Haider Kamel, a three-sport athlete and coach at the dilapidated police athletic club in the Shebab district of east Baghdad.

"There were disagreements between the clubs and we are trying to work it out."

While Iraq's future Olympians may be years from realizing their athletic potential—and few, if any, will be ready to participate in next year's Olympic Games in Athens—rearranging the sports structure is a start. More immediately, it may also help to minimize social upheaval as the city rebuilds.

"We really want to get the sports activities alive because it is important," said Iraqi police Col. Mothatar Noore Fathe, the club's director.

"Getting the clubs up and running will be huge because they'll have something to do rather than be on the streets," added Lt. Col. Joseph Rice of the U.S. Army's 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, which visited the club Tuesday to determine what help it needs to reopen.

The police club has a 1,000-seat basketball arena, a field house, an indoor shooting range, a soccer field and a small stadium on its campus. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was a magnet for local youths and competitive athletes and one of the city's better sports facilities.

Under Hussein, athletes who were good enough to play on the club's teams became members of the police force while focusing on sports. The Baath Party published a newspaper called "Baath Sports."

Hussein's son Uday headed Iraq's Olympic Committee. Uday Hussein's headquarters building, next to the police club and surrounded by a high wall decorated with the Olympic rings, was destroyed by U.S. bombs.

In his capacity as a de facto sports minister, Uday Hussein had a reputation for treating athletes well and gave them cars and other privileges—until they lost.

"When they won he gave them more, when they lost, they had to go away," said Kamel. "Some of them were sent to jail. Some were put under house arrest. He forced them to work on his farms."

The new Olympic committee will not take that punitive approach, Fathe said.

Fathe is hoping the U.S. Army will help restore the club, where the cause of damage was about evenly split between bombing and looters. Col. Vincent Foulk of the Army's 308th Brigade estimated that it would cost $20,000 to make minor repairs, replace broken windows, fill in bunkers, upgrade the facilities and purchase sports equipment, but U.S. officers made no promises.

Still the coaches are optimistic there are world-class athletes waiting to be trained. Iraq's only medal in the Olympics came when a weightlifter won bronze in 1960, the first year that the country participated in the Games.

"There are people who are going to be champions," Kamel said. "They want support from somewhere."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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