Iraqi Flag-Bearer Defects to United States
ATLANTA (AP) _ The Iraqi weightlifter who defected at the Atlanta Olympics said today his gesture was a protest against ``the oppression of the Iraqi people″ by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Raed Ahmed, who slipped out of the athletes’ village Wednesday, appeared at news conference at an Atlanta hotel after meeting with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.
Ahmed said he applied for political asylum and was told a decision would be made within a few days.
``It’s a political statement against the oppression of the Iraqi people,″ he said.
Ahmed was dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans and wore a pin on his shirt of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group that helped him defect. He spoke in a calm, even voice through an interpreter.
Ahmed, who is married with no children, said he understood his wife was in a safe place within Iraq. But he said he was worried that Saddam’s regime might torture other members of his family who remain in Iraq.
``If he would hear what I say, he would probably hurt my family,″ Ahmed said. ``I am very much worried about them.″
Ahmed said he believes the people of Iraq would be very happy about his defection, citing severe food shortages and other hardships in the country.
``People are weak and cannot do much,″ he said.
Ahmed, who carried the Iraqi flag in the opening ceremony of the games, said he decided to defect before leaving for the Olympics but had also looked forward to competing.
``I trained not only to defect,″ he said. ``I was wishing and hoping to get a medal.″
Ahmed finished 23rd in the 218-pound class last Sunday.
Ahmed is the second Olympic team member to defect during the games. On Tuesday, Mariano Leyva, a trainer who is a 13-year veteran of the Cuban national boxing team, surfaced in Miami after disappearing from the games three days earlier. He said he feared reprisals for speaking out against mistreatment of Cuban athletes.
Ahmed, 29, ran out of the athletes’ village when Iraqi team officials weren’t looking and was driven away by an accomplice from the Iraqi National Congress.
``He was running, sweating, and was very afraid and nervous,″ said Omar Muhamed, a Georgia Tech student and member of the group who helped arrange the defection.
Ahmed was taken to a house in suburban Decatur, where he contacted the INS to request asylum.
Muhamed said he had been informed by opposition sources that Ahmed was hoping to defect during the games. He said he made contact with Ahmed last week through a common friend in the United States.
Posing as an Argentinean to mislead Iraqi team officials, Muhamed said he was able to approach Ahmed in the village and hand him a letter offering to help him defect.
Muhamed said he proposed to spirit Ahmed away from his competition venue last week, but the weightlifter first wanted to ensure the safety of his wife, Madiha Mohamad, in Iraq.
Muhamed said he contacted the Iraqi National Congress in London, which arranged for the wife to be moved from Basra to a safe haven in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, where Iraqi forces are barred by international sanctions.
``Last night, once he knew his wife was out, he decided to take off today,″ Muhamed said in a telephone interview Wednesday. ``He called me at noon today and said, `I’m ready.‴
Muhamed said he parked at a gas station near the village. When Iraqi officials weren’t looking, Ahmed made his sprint out of the village to the waiting car.
Also involved in the escape was Francis Brooke, an American who said he previously lived in London and worked with the Iraqi opposition group. Brooke said Iraqi team officials had grown suspicious of Ahmed’s intentions.
``Iraqi secret service are members of the delegation,″ Brooke said. ``They are assigned as handlers or minders. They were arranging a trip to the zoo for all the Iraqis. While they were busy making their arrangements, (Ahmed) picked up his bag and went out the door.″
While Ahmed’s wife is safe, members of his extended family could be in danger, Brooke said.
``It was a great risk for them that he’s doing this,″ Brooke said. ``Since he wants to make a political statement, that’s the risk he’s willing to take.″
In a statement issued in London, the Iraqi opposition group quoted Ahmed as denouncing the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
``Saddam, his two sons Uday and Qusay, and his regime have turned Iraq into a concentration camp,″ the statement said. ``I have witnessed with my own eyes Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hasan Majid, shoot innocent civilians. I had to take this opportunity to escape.″
Ahmed told the New York Times his country’s delegation was told by Iraqi officials to turn their heads away from President Clinton while marching in the opening ceremony because Clinton and former President George Bush ``wanted to destroy Iraq.″
``Everybody else in our group looked away from President Clinton. They were not men. But I turned my head and looked at him and I could not believe my eyes. He was standing and applauding for us,″ the Times quoted him as saying. ``I know that if the games were in Iraq, Saddam Hussein would not clap for the U.S.″