May 21, 2008 / 3:42 PM / 11 years ago

Dispute threatens Iraq place at Beijing Games

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A dispute erupted between Iraq’s government and its Olympic committee on Wednesday that could jeopardise the country’s participation in the Beijing Olympics.

Less than three months before the start of the Beijing Games, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced that the cabinet had decided to disband the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

He said the committee was illegitimate because it lacked a quorum and had failed to hold new elections.

A temporary committee would be formed, headed by the Ministry for Youth and Sports, which would hold elections for a new Olympic Committee within three months, he said.

The head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee, Bashar Mustafa, reacted angrily, accusing the ministry of “blatant interference to control and undermine the work of the Iraqi Olympic Committee”.

“The statement to dissolve the Iraqi Olympic Committee is not in the people’s interests, not in the interests of the state at this time and not in the interests of Iraqi sports,” he said.

“We received a notification from the International (Olympic) Committee...they will suspend the membership of Iraq if this decision is implemented, so we cannot participate in Beijing,” he said.

The International Olympic Committee, highly sensitive to outside interference with national Olympic committees (NOCs), backed the Iraqi Olympic Committee, calling on the government to respect its autonomy.

“The IOC has learned today that there have been serious interference from the Iraqi government within the National Olympic Committee and sports movement in Iraq and has written to the Iraqi Minister of Youth and Sports to ask the government to respect the autonomy of the NOC and to re-establish its legitimate office bearers,” it said in a statement.

“We are very concerned about the situation and have expressed our support for the elected members of the NOC. The matter will be brought to the attention of the next IOC Executive Board in Athens,” it said.

The IOC Executive Board is due to meet in the Greek capital on June 4-6.

The Beijing Games opens on August 8 and Iraq planned to send a small team despite violence that has killed more than 100 athletes in the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Mustafa said he planned to meet Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday to try to persuade them to rescind the decision.

The government says Iraq’s Olympic Committee is a temporary body and should have held new elections, but Iraqi Olympic Committee officials maintain there was an agreement to hold new elections after the Beijing Olympics.

ATHLETES DISAPPOINTED

“Regretfully, when they heard from one side only they did not ring us and ask us. As if we were a commercial office, they closed it with the stroke of a pen,” Mustafa said.

Iraqi athletes have been determined to make their presence felt at the Beijing Games despite the intense difficulties they face. Mustafa said several Olympic athletes had told him how depressed they were at the government’s decision.

At least seven Iraqi athletes — two rowers, a weightlifter, a sprinter, a discus thrower, a judoka and an archer — have won spots at the Beijing Games.

Athletes’ reputations and international links make them and their families targets of violence in Iraq, and the country’s sports infrastructure has decayed over decades.

Mustafa’s predecessor as Olympic Committee boss — former basketball player Ahmed al-Hadjiya — was kidnapped along with other sport officials by gunmen who stormed a conference in broad daylight in 2006. They are still missing.

Sport gave Iraqis arguably their greatest moment of unity since the fall of Saddam Hussein, when an Iraqi soccer team including members of all its main warring groups defeated a heavily favoured Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Cup last year.

The team, which came in a remarkable fourth in Athens in 2004, failed to qualify this year.

(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann)

Writing by Adrian Croft, editing by Trevor Huggins

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