New sports center helps Iraqi youths opt out of insurgency

With US Army support, the Adhamiya Sports Center in Baghdad helps kids become athletes.

Tom A. peter
Respite: Up to 1,000 children per week enjoy facilities, including a swimming pool, at this Baghdad sports center.

As the residents of Baghdad enjoy a newfound quiet, some Iraqis are hoping that sports can help keep the peace. Former Iraqi athletes have opened a sports center for the youths of the Adhamiya neighborhood that they imagine will work much like the US inner-city sports programs that have helped reduce crime. But the Adhamiya Sports Center isn't worried about small-time criminal street gangs; it's trying to keep young men out of violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda, which recruits heavily in the area.

For just over a year, the Adhamiya Sports Center has offered programs in soccer, weight lifting, basketball, wrestling, and – since opening a pool in July – swimming. All activities are free, except for the swimming pool, which charges about $2.50 for a two- to three-hour pass. Each week, the center attracts between 700 and 1,000 young people.

In the midst of Iraq's present turmoil, investing in a sports complex may seem extravagant, but athletics have proven to be a powerful unifier here. During some of the most bitter fighting, the victory of the Iraqi national soccer team in the 2007 Asia Cup brought a moment of peace in which Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds celebrated together.

Farouk Chanchoon, a former Olympic boxer and board member at the center, hopes to encourage future international champions.

"I want to make them good enough for the Olympics, but more importantly I want them to see the world," says Mr. Chanchoon. "And if they can't be professional athletes, maybe they can coach, or become team managers, or pursue another career in sports."

The immediate interest in the center's facilities may be inspired by the fact that two Iraqi athletes are heading to Beijing this summer to compete in track and field. On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) lifted an earlier ban on Iraqi participation in the Games due to the questionable politicking of the country's national Olympic committee. The reversal came after Iraqi officials assured the IOC of the panel's independence.

The US military also sees the value of the Adhamiya Sports Complex and has invested nearly $300,000 to repair the facilities and fund programs. A US Army civil affairs team is in the process of proposing another $200,000 worth of projects that would benefit the center.

"It's giving underprivileged kids an opportunity to have fun, work with other kids, learn a sport, and learn something positive that they will take with them through the rest of their lives," says Staff Sgt. Andrew Leiser, a member of the Charlie Company 404 Civil Affairs team in Adhamiya. "It goes back to keeping the kids out of trouble."

The center seems to be successfully offering children options. A year ago, "we would just study, do our homework, and go to school in the morning," says Mohammed Khalid Thabat, an Iraqi teen who now plays basketball at the center.

Youths avoiding involvement with insurgent groups are hard-pressed to find a place to relax in Adhamiya. During the peak of Iraq's sectarian fighting, when residents from this predominately Sunni district tried to take a dip in the Tigris, Shiite militias across the river often shot at them.

For Chanchoon, who gives lunch money to disadvantaged kids at the center, involvement is motivated by love for both sport and country. After competing in the 1980 Olympics, he declined an offer to box professionally in Europe. "My love for my country and my people would not allow me to go," he says.

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