Bush draws Iraqi team's ire

Use of soccer success in presidential campaign angering players and fans

Athens 2004

August 24, 2004|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ATHENS - They're the darlings of the Summer Games and just one win away from a medal. But now Iraq's Olympic soccer players, and many of their fans, are complaining that their team has become a political football in President Bush's re-election campaign.

The problem began when Bush decided to share in the good fortunes of the Iraqi club, which is competing in its first Olympics in more than a decade. After enduring torture under the regime of Saddam Hussein and overcoming hardships such as the loss of its German coach - who fled when militants began abducting Westerners - the team has advanced to tonight's semifinal with Paraguay.

As the team racked up wins, Bush began to mention the club in his stump speeches, holding it up as an example of his success in the so-called war on terrorism. And his campaign produced an Olympic-themed TV commercial showing a swimmer and the flags of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In 1972, there were 40 democracies in the world. Today, 120," the ad says. "And this Olympics there will be two more free nations. And two fewer terrorist regimes."

But some of Iraq's players say they resent the team being used as a prop in the presidential campaign. Especially among other Arab states, the Iraqi team has had to struggle to be recognized not as a creation of American occupiers.

"Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," player Salih Sadir told the online magazine SI.com over the weekend.

Said teammate Ahmad Manajid: "How will he [Bush] face his god after having slaughtered so many men and women?"

And after Iraq beat Australia on Saturday, coach Adnan Hamad Majeed said, "We will never believe that Bush is with us."

Iraqi fans, too, are angry.

"These victories are not because of Bush but because of our efforts and hard work," businessman Samir Ganni, who has been organizing caravans of fans to Iraq's Olympic games, said yesterday. "Some of the players ... said if they weren't in sports they would be fighting the Americans, like their relatives."

The U.S. Olympic Committee has also raised concerns about the campaign ad, saying it may have violated copyright laws restricting general use of the name "Olympics" as well as rules against using the Games to promote a political candidate.

Bush's campaign is defending the ad. "We're very proud of that ad," campaign director Ken Mehlman said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. The creation of what he called two new democracies, Iraq and Afghanistan, is "something all Americans should be proud of."

Yesterday, Iraqi athletes apparently had been ordered to keep quiet about the controversy. At a news conference with Iraq's soccer coach, a FIFA official instructed reporters not to pose political questions.

But Majeed, asked about the Bush campaign ad and accompanying furor, said: "We cannot separate politics and sports."

Indeed, keeping the two things separate is not a simple matter. The USOC, the State Department and other international donors have paid to train, outfit and transport the Iraqi competitors. Iraqi athletes have expressed gratitude to the United States for removing Hussein and his son Uday, who ran the nation's Olympic committee and ordered players beaten or imprisoned if their performances disappointed him. U.S. forces killed Uday last year.

But anti-American sentiment among many Iraqis remains high as violence continues to convulse the country, more than 140,000 U.S. troops remain there and reconstruction efforts have been slow to improve people's lives.

Anger among Iraqis grew when rumors circulated that Bush would attend the championship game this week if Iraq made it into the final. Then an Iraqi Olympic Committee official told the Times that the soccer team had been asked to display Afghanistan's flag along with its own banner at Iraq's final game. It refused, the official said.

A State Department official said she had no knowledge of such a request about Afghanistan's flag. Bush's campaign officials said the president was not planning to attend the Olympics, although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to travel to Athens this weekend.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Mohammed Arrawi of the Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this article.

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