PtG Article 10.08.2006

Athletes and sports officials in Iraq under constant threat of murder or abduction

Murders and abductions of athletes and sport officials are rapidly becoming the norm in Iraq. In July 2006, most of Iraq’s Olympic Committee was abducted by men in uniforms, the coach of the Iraqi wrestling team was murdered and Iraq’s national football coach resigned following death threats.

Athletes at grass root level are also at risk. AFP reports that Iraq’s Ministry of Sport are planning to build 150 protected sports grounds around Baghdad after a suicide bomber drove his car filled with explosives into a football match watched by police and civilians and killed 10 people. Two days earlier, a bomb planted in a football pitch exploded during a game killing 10 and wounding 15.

Terrorist tactics against uniting force of sport?

There are no simple explanations for this targeting of athletes and sport officials. In the case of the abduction of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, no demand from the kidnappers has been made public, and in May 15 members of the Iraqi taekwondo team also disappeared en route to Jordan without a trace or demand.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the head of the Iraq Taekwondo Association, Jamal Abdul Karim, said that he felt the message was clear.

“They want youth to stop practising sport because terrorists know that sport is the one thing that has succeeded in Iraq.”

Shortly after making this statement, Karim was abducted with the other members of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

… or rivalries within the Iraqi sports movement?

Others in Iraq attribute the violence to different views on the role of sport in Iraqi society.

Niran al-Sammari, the wife of the president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, told Christian Science Monitor that she believes the motive for the kidnapping was political, not financial. She said that opponents of her husband wanted to drag the committee into sectarian politics and were angry because her husband insisted that sport and politics should not be mixed.

The coach of the successful Iraqi football team, Akram Ahmed Salman, told AFP that the cause of death threats against him was his association with the Iraqi sports federation.

“I am paying the price for the rivalries between various sports officials,” he said.

Salman has resigned from his post and fled to the Kurdish-ruled north of the country but Iraq’s football federation has refused to accept his resignation.

The head of the federation, Hussein Saaed, said to Associated Press that there are people who make use of the bad security situation in the country to threaten sportsmen.

“But we cannot let them win. It is a national duty to train the team and represent Iraq internationally. We can not just stop playing. Sport is now at the heart of the national unity of Iraq,” said Saaed.