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Disbanding of committee leads to Iraq's ban from Games

BAGHDAD -- Just two weeks before the start of the Olympics,
Iraq was told Thursday it's not welcome in Beijing because of a
political feud in Baghdad that angered the games' guardians and
exiled a country that arrived to a roaring ovation at the opening
ceremony four years ago.

The International Olympic Committee told Iraqi sports officials
in a letter that it would uphold its ban imposed in June after the
government in Baghdad replaced its national Olympic panel with
members not recognized by the IOC.

The IOC had called the move unacceptable government
interference.

In Iraq, it also smacked of the lingering sectarian bitterness
between the new Shiite power brokers and the Sunnis who were once
favored under Saddam Hussein -- whose son, Odai, ran the nation's
Olympic committee as a personal fiefdom and was accused of
torturing athletes who came up short.

"Clearly we'd very much like to have seen Iraq's athletes in
Beijing," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. "We are very
disappointed that the athletes have been so ill-served by their own
government's actions."

But Davies suggested there was still a possibility for
last-ditch talks to salvage Iraq's place before the games open Aug.
8.

"If there can be some movement and if a resolution can be
found, that's still an open door," she told CNN. When asked if
there's a window of about a week, she said "Correct."

At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the crowd at the opening
ceremony rose to its feet as the small Iraqi team entered the
stadium for the first Olympics since the fall of Saddam. The team
was led by Najah Ali, a 106-pound boxer who carried the
red-white-and-green flag. Later, the pint-sized underdog pumped his
fists after winning a bout in an early round and shouted from the
ring that his victory was "a symbol of freedom."

Iraq's soccer team also became one of the feel-good stories of
Athens when it made a surprising run to the semifinals -- only to be
defeated by Italy 1-0 in the bronze-medal game.

This year, at least five Iraqi athletes were expected to compete
in Beijing in sports including archery, judo, rowing and
weightlifting. Their spots were given to other nations by the IOC.

Iraqi sports officials reacted with disbelief and outrage as
they watched the efforts for Beijing vanish. Iraq has only one
medal -- a bronze in weightlifting in 1960 -- since its first
appearance at the Summer Olympics in 1948.

"Unjust," said Fawzi Akram, a member of the sports committee
in parliament. "Iraq is passing through an exception period and
should be given special consideration."

The official who received the IOC's letter -- Jassim Mohammed
Jaafar, the minister of sport and youth -- grumbled: "We reject
this unfair decision."

But it's been coming to a head for months.

In May, Iraq's government dissolved the 11-member National
Olympic Committee. Among the claims was that it was illegitimate
because it lacked enough members for a legal quorum -- even though
four members of the committee, including its chief, were kidnapped
two years ago and their fates remain unknown.

There's also possible echoes of Iraq's sectarian rifts. The
Youth and Sports Ministry is dominated by Shiites who also control
the government. Iraq's Olympic Committee had included several
holdovers from the Saddam era.

The IOC banned Iraq in June, but said it was open for talks.
Iraq, too, promised to meet the IOC and present "solid evidence"
of corruption, unfair elections and other alleged failings by the
committee.

But on Thursday, the IOC said the deadline to open negotiations
had run out -- just as athletes begin their final preparations for
Beijing.

"We are deeply sorry for this result," said the IOC letter.

Iraq is not the first country to miss an Olympics because of
government interference.

In the most recent case, Afghanistan was prevented from sending
a team to the Sydney Games in 2000 when the Taliban regime's heavy
hand extended to sports.

The U.S. Olympic Committee also had a stake in the Iraq team,
signing an agreement in 2006 to help with training for Beijing.

White House press secretary Dana Perino expressed
disappointment.

"I'm sure that the Iraqi athletes who have trained so hard and
were finally going to represent a country that is free and
sovereign and working to establish its democracy, they have to be
terribly disappointed, and I'm disappointed for the athletes as
well," she said.

While many Iraqi officials rallied behind the government, the
mood among fans was sour.

"The [IOC] decision will be a catastrophe for Iraqi sports,"
said Dia Hussein, coach of the Iraq Police Soccer team, which plays
in the national league. "I blame the Iraqi government for bringing this on the country."

Yaroub Kadim, a 22-year-old university student, described sports
as "one of the only real lifelines connecting everyone in the
country."

There's a cruel irony in the suspicions that sectarian power
plays may have sunk Iraq's Olympic hopes. Sports has become one of
the few genuine sources of national unity since the U.S.-led
invasion in 2003.

In July 2007, Iraqis erupted with joy when their national team --
the Lions of the Two Rivers -- won the Asia Cup. Sunnis, Shiites and
Kurds poured into streets lined with blast walls to celebrate,
shoot guns in the air and bask in a common Iraqi pride.

The soccer team was also hit by a ban by the sport's governing
body, but was lifted in time for Iraq to compete in the World Cup
qualifying tournament. Sports figures also have joined the long
rolls of civilians killed in the war.

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.