Sport in the nightmare of Iraq

Andy Newman

During the build up to the invasion of Iraq my local Labour MP, Julia Drown, was clearly torn by the arguments. Ultimately she voted for war because she was persuaded by some Iraqis living in this country that Iraq needed the West to liberate them from Saddam Hussein. She would tell horror stories of life under Saddam. An important part of the argument today from those who still justify the war is that life was worse under Saddam Hussein. It is hard for those of us who live in a stable Western democracy to quantify the changes. The effect of sanctions had already left Iraq impoverished even before the invasion started, and it is hard to judge without personal experience whether life is more unsafe and violent now than it was under the Ba'athists

So let us consider a relatively normal aspect of our lives that we can equate to life in Iraq. Sport under Saddam’s regime was brutally subordinated not only to the interests of the Ba’athist regime, but also to the personal sadism and brutality of Saddam’s son, Uday Hussein. The literally psychopathic Uday held sway over every aspect of Sport, so it is important to understand what sort of man he was.

Uday took over the Iraqi Olympic Committee in 1987, and turned it into the Ministry of Youth, which he used as a power base to interfere is all aspects of Iraqi life. He had unlimited funds, and built a huge personal pay-roll of veteran army officers personally loyal to him. He set up and personally managed football teams. Players who preformed poorly on the pitch were routinely sent to gaol, and it was a common sight for an Iraqi footballer to take to the pitch with a bald head, his hair shaved in prison.

He briefly had to resign as head of the Olympic committee after being sent to prison in 1988 for the brutal murder of one of his father’s aides at a party. Uday killed Kamel Hannah Jajo because Jajo had allegedly arranged the meeting between Saddam Hussein and his second wife, Samira al-Shahbander. First wife Sajida Tulfah demanded that her son Uday kill Jajo as revenge, which he did with an electric knife in the middle of a crowded party. Given the public nature of the brutal slaying, unusual even by the standards of Saddam's immediate family, it was impossible to cover up completely. But nevertheless Uday served just one month in gaol. After a brief exile in Switzerland he returned again in 1990 to run Iraqi sport.

Later in 1991, Uday burst into the house of Saddam Hussein’s half brother, Watban Ibrahim, where a party was in progress, and sprayed the room with machine gun fire, seriously wounding his uncle in the leg, and killing six young women: dancers and singers who were entertaining the guests. As a result Saddam declared there was no room for a state within a state, and the security service raided the headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, and freed three prisoners from its dungeons. The Iraqi Football federation responded in the only way they could: voting 155 to 0 to reaffirm Uday’s position as head of Iraqi sport.

Given the arbitrary brutality of Uday, and possible imprisonment for poor performance, Iraqi sportsmen and sportswomen could have been expected to be pleased with the American invasion. And during the 2004 Olympics, which coincided with George W Bush’s re-election campaign, there was unusual interest by the American press in the fortunes of the Iraqi football team, who reached the semi-finals, to be finally eliminated 3:1 by Paraguay.

But Ahmad Manajid, who played as a midfielder in the game against Morocco, told the US monthly “Sports Illustrated” magazine "How will [George Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes. I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists? Everyone [in Falluja] has been labelled a terrorist. These are all lies. Falluja people are some of the best people in Iraq." According to Sports Illustrated, one of Manajid's cousin was a resistance fighter who was killed by US occupation forces. And Manajid said he would have become a resistance fighter had he not been on the Olympic team.

This happened in 2004, when the tendency for Iraq to descend into sectarian violence was not so strongly developed. There was a huge difference to the reaction between the first and second sieges of Fallujah. The first siege saw widespread acts of solidarity across Iraq and statements of support from the Shia Mehdi army. The second siege when Fallujah was destroyed was much less well supported outside of the Sunni triangle. This was largely because of the growing association in the minds of many Iraqis between Fallujah and the Islamist sectarians, including the Wah-habi butchers like Al Zaqarwi.

Today tit-for-tat sectarian violence is consuming Iraq. And it is important to note, as Rahul Mahajan argues that although the sectarian war between Shia and Sunnis is a distinctly different war than the one against the American occupiers, “they all tend to blur ands merge in with other, and they are all being fought in the same place and effecting the same people. And so that very much affects the character and identity of the various groups that are fighting.”

So what is sport like in Iraq today. Quite apart from the question of whether people even have the space to think about sport, given the violence, poverty and collapse of the social infrastructure. Last week the national Iraqi tennis coach, Hussein Ahmed Rashid, and Davis-cup team players Nasser Ali Hatem and Wissam Adel Auda were killed in the al-Saidiya district of Baghdad. Witnesses said the three were dressed in shorts and were killed days after Islamist extremists had issued a warning forbidding the wearing of short trousers. Obviously the wearing of shorts is necessary for competitive tennis. This is not an isolated incident, the week before that according to the Iraqi Olympic Committee, 15 members of Iraq's taekwondo team were kidnapped between Falluja and Ramadi. The kidnappers have demanded $100,000 for their release.

Iraq is descending into barbarism, and there is little sign that any favourable outcome for the Iraqi people is achievable.




May 2006

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