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IOC rescinds Iraq’s ban from Olympics

IOC officials say they are lifting Iraq's ban because the government has pledged to ensure the independence of its national Olympic committee.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq will be allowed to participate in the Beijing games after the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday rescinded its suspension of the country's Olympic association.

The decision came after last-minute talks during which an Iraqi government delegation pledged to hold free elections for its national Olympic committee under international observation.

The deadline to submit competitors' names for athletics events expires Wednesday.

Iraq is expected to send two athletes to Beijing. Five others lost their chance to go when the final date to select competitors for archery, judo, rowing and weightlifting passed last week.

"The National Olympic Committee will have fair elections before the end of November," said Pere Miro, head of the IOC's department for relations with national Olympic committees.

Until then, Iraq's Olympic organization will be run by an interim committee proposed by its national sports federations and approved by the IOC, he said.

"We want to forget all the past," Iraq's government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press after signing the agreement in front of journalists. "We want to have real representation for the Iraqi teams and the Iraqi supporters."

Allegations of corruption
The IOC suspended Iraq in May citing political interference in the country's national Olympic committee, which the government had dissolved over allegations of corruption.

Basil Abdul Mahdi, an adviser to the Ministry of Youth and Sport, said last week there would be "no retreat" in Baghdad's decision to replace the disbanded Olympic committee. The hardline stance prompted concern that Iraq would not be represented in Beijing.

But eight-hour talks at the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne on Tuesday involving Miro and Husain al-Musallam, director-general of the Olympic Council of Asia, produced a breakthrough, allowing Iraq to have two competitors in the athletics events.

Hours before the talks, a delegation of Iraqi groups in Switzerland came to the IOC headquarters to deliver a letter to Olympic officials expressing dismay at their country's suspension and requesting the decision be overturned.

Claims of unfair treatment
Ahmed Tabour, head of the Iraqi Cultural and Sports Committee in Switzerland, said his country was being treated unfairly by the IOC.

"Iraq was never suspended during the days of Saddam (Hussein), who personally appointed the national Olympic committee," he told The Associated Press. "The Iraqi people need hope, and sport gives them a lot of hope."

The IOC last suspended Iraq in May 2003 — weeks after U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam's regime. That ban occurred after the IOC learned of the abuse of athletes by Saddam's son Uday, the country's former Olympic chief.

The suspension was lifted a year later, allowing Iraq to take part in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens where it fielded a team of 25 athletes.

Iraq's soccer team made it to the semifinals, prompting celebrations throughout a country where violence has claimed the lives of athletes, coaches and staff.

The Olympic cycling coach, national wrestling coach, a soccer federation member and a prominent volleyball player have been killed, most in 2006 during the height of sectarian slayings.

The two athletes who will represent Iraq this year have benefited from an IOC solidarity program that allowed them to train at sports facilities abroad, IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said.

Although the duo failed to meet the qualifying standards to go to Beijing, they were allowed to take part under the IOC's wild card program designed to ensure every country is represented at the games.

The fact that they are unlikely to add to Iraq's overall tally of one bronze medal since its first appearance at the Summer Olympics in 1948 is no great concern, said al-Dabbagh.

"Sport is really important for us in Iraq right now," he said. "It brings the people together."