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Iraq Elects New Olympic Committee

January 30, 2004

DUKAN, Iraq (AP) _ A former star athlete and defector was unanimously elected to head Iraq’s Olympic committee Thursday, promising to sweep away ``the painful past″ of his predecessor, Saddam Hussein’s son Odai, who reportedly tortured players when they displeased him.

Ahmed al-Sammarai is a former general who returned last year after 20 years in exile. He and other officers were voted onto the Iraqi National Olympic Committee during balloting by sports officials at this northern Iraqi mountain lake resort.

The selection of al-Sammarai _ along with three vice presidents, a secretary general, a treasurer and five executive committee members _ could pave the way for Iraqi athletes to compete in the Summer Games in Athens, Greece, if the International Olympic Committee lifts the suspension imposed after Saddam’s regime collapsed in April.

Iraqi sports officials, many of them overweight and smoking cigarettes, sat in rows of a hotel auditorium and applauded as each delegate cast a ballot in a glass box.

``We will not forget the painful past and we’ll not allow what happened to be repeated,″ al-Sammarai said after his uncontested election. ``We will build swimming pools and stadiums in place of prisons and torture chambers.″

Al-Sammarai, a former basketball and track star, said the ``historic elections″ show ``how far Iraq has come in the last nine months″ since the fall of Saddam’s dictatorial rule.

Al-Sammarai, a former basketball and track star, said the ``historic elections″ show ``how far Iraq has come in the last nine months″ since the fall of Saddam’s dictatorial rule.

Representatives of the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other Olympic organizations attended the election, held for security reasons in this remote resort about 45 miles northwest of Sulaimaniyah.

The area is controlled by ethnic Kurds, America’s closest allies among Iraq’s 25 million people.

The IOC delegation will report on the proceedings to its executive board at its next meeting Feb. 27 in Athens, where the international committee may decide to lift the Iraqi suspension and allow Iraqi athletes to compete.

A number of Iraqi athletes have been identified as the most likely to qualify for the Olympics, mainly in track and field, swimming, boxing, weightlifting, wrestling and taekwondo. The IOC will organize training camps to allow these athletes to prepare for the games.

Many Iraqi athletes suffered when Odai ran the Olympic program. He reportedly maintained a jail and torture chamber in the basement of the national Olympic committee headquarters in Baghdad for athletes who fell out of his favor.

A notorious playboy known for a sadistic streak, Odai allegedly forced players to kick stone balls if they missed shots during games. Others reportedly had their toenails ripped out or their feet burned in boiling water, and some were simply jailed and deprived of food.

Odai and his brother, Qusai, were killed in a shootout with American soldiers in the northern city of Mosul on July 22. Saddam was captured Dec. 13. Al-Sammarai said the torture rooms may be turned into a museum.

In Lausanne, Switzerland, IOC President Jacques Rogge expressed disappointment that no woman was elected to a committee post, although two of the candidates were women.

``They should definitely have a proactive policy on that. That’s important,″ Rogge told The Associated Press.

A female candidate, Iman Sabih Hussein, tied with Jamal Abdulkarim for the fifth and final place on the executive board but stepped aside.

Sport officials said Iraqi committee rules required that at least six of the committee officers be presidents of sports federations. Hussein ran as an independent but Abdulkarim heads the national Taekwondo federation.

Al-Sammarai said the committee would meet in a few days in the northern town of Irbil to resolve the issue of women’s representation. Rogge said that if the balloting was fair and the results representative, he did not expect the absence of any women officers to stand in the way of Iraq’s reinstatement.

``With the democratic election of Iraq’s new National Olympic Committee, we have taken a critical step toward ensuring our participation on the world state at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens,″ al-Sammarai said. ``The International Olympic Committee’s validation of the election has sent a clear and unmistakable message around the world _ a free Iraq has arrived.″

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Associated Press sports writer Steve Wilson contributed to this report from Lausanne, Switzerland.

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