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Iraqi Flag-Bearer Defects

August 1, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ An Iraqi weightlifter who carried his national flag in the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics defected Wednesday and asked for political asylum in the United States, Iraqi opposition officials said.

Raed Ahmed dashed out of the athletes’ village when Iraqi team officials weren’t looking and was driven off by an accomplice from the Iraqi National Congress, group members said.

``He was running, sweating, and was very afraid and nervous,″ said Omar Muhamed, a Georgia Tech student and member of the opposition group who helped arrange the defection.

Ahmed was driven to a house in Atlanta’s suburb of Decatur, where he contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service to request asylum. An attorney was meeting with the athlete Wednesday night, Muhamed said.

Muhamed said he made contact with Ahmed last week through a common friend in the United States. Posing as an Argentinian to fool 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. ``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 were distracted, 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. He now lives in Georgia and works in political relations.

Brooke said Iraqi team officials had grown suspicious of Ahmed’s intentions.

``The timetable was pushed up,″ he said. ``We had to jump today with them hot on our heels.″

Brooke said the breakaway occurred while the Iraqi delegation was arranging a trip to the zoo for the team.

``While they were busy making all their arrangements, he picked up his bag and went out the door,″ he said. ``We were prepared. We met him right outside the village and hopped him in a car and got out of there.″

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.″

Ahmed finished 23rd in the 218-pound class last Sunday.

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.″

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