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New flag, new regime mark historic moment for Iraqis

8/15/2004

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

"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