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Iraq: Olympic Soccer Team Inspires Nation, Rebuffs Bush

Politics, war, terrorism -- what's all that compared to soccer? The surprising success of the Iraqi Olympic soccer team has injected a major dose of joy into a nation wracked by military occupation, ethnic and religious divisions, kidnappings, and suicide bombings. Tonight, millions of Iraqis will crowd around televisions to watch their team take on Paraguay in a bid to reach the soccer final. But the Iraqi team refuses to be used for political purposes -- either at home, or as propaganda for the reelection campaign of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Prague, 24 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "We bless your leg, Imad. You are a hero! Iraqi team! Iraqi team!"

Like this Iraqi fan, millions of people across Iraq erupted in joy on 21 August after star midfielder Imad Mohammed's dramatic late goal gave Iraq a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Australia.

The triumph led their national soccer team into an Olympic semifinal with Paraguay tonight. But more importantly, it lifted the spirits of a nation under siege.

The team is made up of Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish players from cities like Al-Najaf, Al-Fallujah, and Kirkuk. It is a reflection of Iraq's many ethnic and religious divides. But it is also an example of the country's potential unity, as one Baghdad driver pointed out 22 August: "What do you want me to say? This [victory] is for all Iraqis!"

With victory tonight, Iraq would be assured of at least a silver medal and a place in the final against either Italy or Argentina. Defeat would put them into a consolation match for the bronze.

Iraq has only won one Olympic medal -- a weightlifting bronze at the Rome Games in 1960. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi athletes who performed poorly faced torture or worse from Saddam's son, Uday Hussein, who headed the Iraqi Olympic Committee before his death at the hands of U.S. forces last year.
"We want to give our people a cause to celebrate, to forget their problems." -- Iraqi coach Hamad

Coach Adnan Hamad -- whose squad had to train abroad to avoid the violence at home -- said his players hope to keep providing joy for their suffering countrymen back home.

"You all know the problems we have in our country, and still we try our best -- that is the way to success," Hamad said. "We want to give our people a cause to celebrate, to forget their problems."

To be sure, the Iraqi team has been one of the most remarkable stories of the games in Athens. It has also distracted Iraqis and foreigners alike from ongoing violence in Iraq, where U.S.-led forces and insurgents have been engaged in intense battles for the past three weeks.

U.S. President George W. Bush, eager to put the war in Iraq in a positive light, is using the Iraqi presence at the Olympics in his latest reelection campaign advertisement. The television spot claims Bush's actions have liberated both Afghanistan and Iraq and enabled them to take part in the Olympics.

The narrator's voice states: "Freedom is spreading throughout the world like a sunrise. And this Olympics, there will be two more free nations -- and two fewer terrorist regimes. With strength, resolve and courage, democracy will triumph over terror -- and hope will defeat hatred."

Bush has not stopped there. On at least three occasions during the Olympics -- including during a national radio address on 13 August, the first day of the games -- Bush has pointed to the success of the Iraqi soccer team as justification for the war:

"For the first time in decades, the world will see Iraqi Olympians free from the brutal punishment of the dictator's son," Bush said. "Twenty-nine athletes from Iraq are competing in Athens, including the Iraqi soccer team, which thrilled the world by winning its first game [4-2 against Portugal]."

But Bush's rhetoric has been roundly rejected by the Iraqi team. Last week, the squad issued a simple statement through midfielder Salih Sadir that asked Bush not to use its success for his campaign.

Other players have been even more passionate. Midfielder Ahmed Manajid, a Sunni from Al-Fallujah, told the U.S. magazine "Sports Illustrated": "How will [Bush] meet his god, having slaughtered so many men and women?" Manajid added that U.S.-led forces killed his cousin who had been fighting in Al-Fallujah, and that were he not playing soccer, he would be part of the "resistance."

Mohammed, the star playmaker from the Shi'a holy city of Karbala who scored the bicycle-kick winner against Australia, has called for all foreign forces to leave Iraq.

The White House has not responded directly to such criticism, and Bush told reporters today that he is watching the Iraqi soccer team's progress with interest.

For his part, coach Hamad said his problem is not with Americans, but with their government. He said security is so bad in Iraq now, that Bush's talk of freedom is senseless:

"You cannot speak about a team that represents freedom," Hamad said. "We do not have freedom in Iraq; we have an occupying force in the country."

But tonight, for 90 minutes at least, many of Iraq's 25 million people will forget those problems and lose themselves in a dream. And if all goes well, the dream may come true.