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Thursday, May 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Iraq soccer team earns berth in Olympics

By Seattle Times news services

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AMMAN, Jordan — Iraq's soccer team, whose players were brutalized and whose stadium was used as a torture chamber under the regime of Saddam Hussein, qualified for the Olympics with a victory over Saudi Arabia.

The 3-1 victory, coupled with a 0-0 draw between Kuwait and Oman, gave Iraq a spot at the Athens Games this August. It's the nation's first Olympic berth in the world's most popular sport.

"Simply stated, this is the biggest moment in Iraqi Olympic history," said Ahmed Al-Samarrai, the president of Iraq's Olympic committee.

Gunfire echoed through Baghdad streets and flares and tracer rounds lit the sky as Iraqis celebrated the victory, Agence France Presse reported.

"Our entire country deserves this incredible win," said Hawar Mulla Mohammed, who scored the winning goal. "When the bus pulled into the stadium (in Amman) tonight, we refused to think of anything but winning, and now we are headed to Athens."

Iraq defender Ahmed Alwan added: "It's a crazy joy for us. Despite all of the difficulties we faced, we still managed to qualify for Athens."

The 24-member soccer squad will join at least six other Iraqi athletes — five men and one woman — in track, boxing, swimming, taekwondo and weightlifting who qualified or were invited by the International Olympic Committee and sports federations. Four Iraqis competed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The IOC in February reinstated Iraq's Olympic committee a year after suspending the agency over allegations that Uday Hussein, one of the former president's sons, used the sports office as a headquarters for torture and corruption. Soccer players were among the athletes who said they were beaten and otherwise abused when they returned from losses in international events.

"The soccer stadium was the scene of torture under Uday Hussein," said David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and an expert on Iraq. "The fact that Iraqis can now field a soccer team that displays the full mosaic of their population marks another step in the struggle of Iraq to become a normal country again."
Uday and his brother, Qusai, died in a gunfight with U.S. soldiers last July. Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in December.

Al-Samarrai said four athletes have been selected for the Iraq Olympic team: Al'aa Hikmet in the women's 100 and 200 meters, Najah Salman Ali in boxing, weightlifter Ali Abdul-Munim Mohammed and Raad Abbas Rasheed in men's taekwondo.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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