New flag, new regime mark historic moment for Iraqis

Updated: August 15, 2004, 12:41 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- A historic moment took place Friday when a team marched into the stadium under a new Iraq flag for the Opening Ceremonies.

Sadir Salih
Sadir Salih, left, and his soccer teammates gave Iraq plenty to cheer about a day before what will be an historic moment at tonight's Opening Ceremonies in Athens.
"I call it the happiest moment in my life," said Ahmed Assamarai, the president of the Iraq Olympic Committee. "I hope I am not going to cry. But in Iraq, I believe all the Iraqis will cheer that, for us to show them the Iraqi delegation and their flag.

"This is a special moment in Iraqi lives. After 35 years of fear and after the last 13 years of isolation from the rest of the world, Iraq is moving ahead. We would be very, very happy to win a medal but our gold medal was received the moment that we qualified for the Olympics to just be in Athens is our gold medal."

Perhaps, but the country still faces a long march ahead after today. Following the torture and abuses by Uday Hussein, Iraq's Olympic federation was reformed shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein last spring. With money at a premium everywhere for rebuilding, however, the country's sports are not exactly the number one priority. Team representatives say $98 million is needed just for needed repairs to the nation's stadiums. Right now, Iraq has $3 million for that need.

Further, not all the athletes are comfortable with Assamarai. He was an Iraqi exile during the Hussein regime, then returned when the Americans ousted Saddam from power during the war. Some Iraqis are so opposed to Assamarai's association with the United States that he was the target of a failed assassination attempt this spring. Others are frustrated that the millions of dollars directed for Iraqi athletics and are somewhat unaccounted for.

Further, Hussein Saeed, Uday's old right-hand man, is in charge of the soccer program and the Olympic committee's vice-president. He has brought in further people from the Hussein regime to help run the program.

Assamarai did not repudiate Saeed, but he did not exactly embrace him, either.

"Yes, he was among the son of the old regime but he didn't do anything," Assamarai said. "We ask people to bring forth evidence if there is any evidence, but until now nobody came forward to do that. To run Iraq now, you can't take all the people who were working for the old regime."

Saeed has said that Iraq should move ahead and stop looking backward at what happened. Assamarai, meanwhile, has proposed a small museum that would place Uday's torture devices out for public viewing.

"I believe that we can't forget," he said. "To at least arrange a museum to let a new generation know the difference between the old regime and the equipment he was using and the new regime.'

Assamarai said the players are focused enough not to let violence back home distract them from the Olympius.

"They are completely out of the politics and violent situations," he said "They understand. They know there is a time they can play and have the hope that everyone can be together."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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