Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Iraqi athletes repair bonds with Kuwait

OLD ACQUAINTANCES Seven members of the Free Iraq Olympic Group met with Asian Olympic officials, the first such meeting to take place since the Gulf crisis

AP , KUWAIT CITY

Exiled Iraqi athletes were preparing to return home to rebuild their country's sports structures after winning the support of the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia.

The seven members of the Free Iraq Olympic Group, who have lived in Europe for years, met with the OCA president Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah on Tuesday, hours after they arrived in this small oil-rich state. They expect to return to Iraq in a few days.

Under the ousted regime, the country's Olympic committee and the soccer federation were run by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, while the other sports federations were controlled by Saddam's cronies. Now, the entire sports infrastructure will have to be rebuilt.

"It is not going to be easy," Naji Ghazi, a runner and group member said.

"Our aim is to bring together the athletes, coaches and sports journalists, and then elect a committee that represents all honorable athletes who did not benefit from working with Uday," he said.

The group will eventually hold elections for a national Olympic committee comprising people "with clean names," said 39-year-old Ghazi, who left Iraq in 1993.

He said Uday, the eldest son of the ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, imprisoned him twice in the 1980s for failing to win gold medals and inciting fellow sportsmen.

Ghazi said the group will use what it learned from European countries about "dealing with athletes, coaching and facilities" to develop sports in Iraq.

OCA president Sheik Ahmed said the group was entrusted with "forming the infrastructure of the new Iraqi sports movement and setting up elections based on the international Olympic convention."

The International Olympic Committee said last week it would provide financial and other assistance to help athletes and coaches train for next year's Olympics in Athens.

It said it would contact the best athletes in Iraq and in exile and make them eligible for special training and coaching programs.

Iraq sent 46 athletes to the 1980 Moscow Olympics but only four to the 2000 Sydney Games.

Kuwait will also offer financial assistance to Iraqi athletes, said Sheik Ahmed.

Saddam ordered the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait that was ended by a US-led coalition in February 1991.

Ties between the two countries have been severed since, and Kuwaitis have refused to play Iraqis in Arab and international tournaments.

Tuesday's meeting was the first between a Kuwaiti official and Iraqi athletes since the Gulf crisis.

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