Fast track to new Iraq: rebuilding sports teams

With US help, Iraqis revamp their athletic program with an eye toward the Olympics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

US forces in Baghdad are hoping that good old-fashioned athletic competition - the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat - will help smooth the transition to democracy in Iraq.

Army civil-affairs units are helping to reorganize some 20 sports clubs throughout the war-torn nation with an eye toward eventually revitalizing Iraq's Olympic sports program.

The Olympic program had been headed by Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday, who has a reputation for ruthlessness. He is said to have punished and even ordered beatings of Iraqi soccer players because they did not play well or lost key games.

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Although it is unlikely the US-backed effort will catapult athletes into gold-medal contention at the 2004 Games, military officials hope it will help build national pride in the new Iraq.

"This is a high-impact, low-cost, high-result project," says Col. Vincent Foulk of the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, an Army reserve unit from Chicago. "The payback is just huge. It gets people back to work, and seeing sports is an indication of normality," he says.

"Once you have an Iraqi team competing internationally, you have a sovereign nation and not an occupied territory."

Colonel Foulk made his comments as he and other civil-affairs officers toured an athletic club sponsored by the Baghdad police department. The club, located in the downtown area, is considered the most prestigious in the nation. At least seven players on Iraq's national soccer team are from the club.

Athletes and coaches at the police club say that Uday Hussein cared only about the national soccer team and ignored other sports such as basketball, volleyball, track, gymnastics, wrestling, and ping-pong. When the national team soccer team lost, they say, he would have team members jailed or force them to work on his farm.

"They didn't know what kind of punishment [Uday] would give them," says Haider Kamal, an Iraqi distance runner.

Players who pleased Uday were given cars and other benefits. "When they win, he gives them more. If they lose, he will punish them more," says Mr. Kamal.

US forces did not target the police club during combat, but looters broke into the 10-acre compound and stole whatever wasn't nailed down. Still, American military officials estimate that a $20,000 grant from the US government might be all that is necessary to replace equipment and repair buildings.

They hope it triggers a new, more open and successful athletic league. Iraqi citizens have already taken the lead, with various club members organizing several meetings this week. "It is them doing it, and it is bottom up," says US Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joseph Rice, also of the 308th. "Talk about a blossoming democracy movement."

Colonel Rice knows something about politics. Until being deployed in Iraq, he was mayor of Glendale, Colo. "They are negotiating how to organize the sports program," he says. "This is what we want, and no one has broken out the guns or machetes yet."

At least two potential American- driven reforms have been mentioned by US officials. Of the 20 athletic clubs in Iraq, only three come from areas south of Baghdad, and only four from areas north of Baghdad. Military officials say the clubs should be more representative of Iraq in the heavily Shiite Muslim south and the heavily Kurdish north.

In the past, the Baath Party dictated who could be on the most prestigious teams, including the national one. The party even published a newspaper called Baath Sports.

But that was before the war. Now both Uday and the Baath Party are out of power, and others are stepping into the vacuum.

"They are organizing themselves without any help, and given time, I'm sure they would be up and running," Foulk says. "But this is something we'd like to see up and running quickly." He says US assistance should make it all happen much faster.

While giving a tour of the sports facility, club members showed US officials a large empty building that once was a shooting range. Next was a gymnasium with only one basketball backboard. Finally, the visitors were shown a large, if somewhat run-down, soccer stadium.

The soccer field is located nearly equidistant between two important buildings in downtown Baghdad. To the northeast is the charred remains of Uday's headquarters, a major power center under Saddam Hussein. The blackened and gutted structure is surrounded by a high wall adorned with the Olympic rings.

To the southwest of the soccer field is the Ministry of Oil, which includes several large, modern buildings. In sharp contrast to the ruins of Uday's building, the Oil Ministry was apparently untouched by US bombs or missiles. And it appears that even looters were kept away from it.

US officials hope the Iraqi people draw lessons from such selective targeting. Among those lessons, they say, is that America stands ready to help Iraq rebuild institutions that will assist in the liberation of Iraqis rather than in their further enslavement.

"Politically, this has a unifying effect for Iraq," says Foulk, referring to the sports clubs' reorganization. "The integration of the [sports club] system should help encourage all members of the Iraqi nation to participate and not just those favored by the Baath Party."

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