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Iraqi Olympic Committee again at center of sports dispute

Basam Ridha al Husseini, advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on sports and other issues, watches a soccer game May 26, 2008, between two Iraqi teams after freezing the Iraqi National Olympic Committee.
Basam Ridha al Husseini, advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on sports and other issues, watches a soccer game May 26, 2008, between two Iraqi teams after freezing the Iraqi National Olympic Committee.

BAGHDAD — FIFA, the governing body for international soccer, suspended Iraq's membership on Monday to protest the Iraqi government's dissolution last week of the executive board of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and its federations.

FIFA called the government's decision a "blatant governmental interference in football affairs" and gave it until Thursday to reinstate the board's members or face a year-long suspension from international competition.

The International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Committee of Asia also threatened to suspend Iraq's membership over the board's dissolution, which the government announced last Tuesday. Suspension of Iraq by the IOC would bar its athletes from competing in the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China in August.

Basam Ridha al Husseini, an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said the government would not reverse its decision and accused former committee members of corruption. He called FIFA's decision "wrong."

"A half a billion was given to them and there is no record of where it went," Husseini said. "Corruption is another form of terrorism. What FIFA is doing is not fair. This is an internal matter and it is not normal circumstances."

Husseini is a member of an interim committee that the government appointed to serve three months until a new board can be elected. FIFA said it would not recognize the interim board.

The decision by FIFA to suspend Iraqi play was a particularly bitter blow for Iraqi soccer fans, who last summer put aside sectarian differences and poured into the streets when the team won the Asia Cup — a rare show of national unity in this badly divided country.

The Iraqi team is scheduled to play Australia June 1 in qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, but would not be allowed to do so if FIFA's suspension holds.

Fans voiced anger at the government.

"The Iraqi people were killing each other and sports united them," Samir Sabeeh, 36, a Sunni Muslim, said as he took a cigarette break in Baghdad's Adhamiyah district. "This is an outrageous failure. We don't have anything left but the air, and if the politicians were capable they would take that away."

The government action also has been sharply criticized by Iraqi newspapers and television, and on Monday Husseini traveled to Shaab stadium where two Iraqi soccer teams played. He shook hands with the players to show support for Iraqi sports.

"We appeal to FIFA not to punish 27 million Iraqis who are waiting desperately to see their team play," he said.

Bashar Mustafa, the acting head of the deposed Iraqi Olympic Committee, called the corruption charges "unfounded." Mustafa became the acting head after Ahmed al Hajiya, the head of the Olympic committee, was kidnapped in 2006 along with 30 other administrators and athletes. None of them was heard from again.

Many members of the committee now live outside the country because they are afraid for their safety.

"This is the coup de grace for Iraqi sports," Mustafa said. "This decision is political and the accusations of corruption are not supported. How do you explain that there is no one on the committee that was questioned or accused of any violations?"

Mustafa called the government's dissolution of the committee part of a plan to reward government supporters with slots on the new Olympic committee.

But soccer fans don't care about the back and forth between the government and the committee. They'd like to see their team compete.

"No water, no electricity and no sports," Omar Mohammed, 28, said as he prepared sandwiches at a shop in Adhamiyah. "This is mass murder and deliberate execution."

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