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The beautiful game turns nasty as sectarian feud spreads to sport

Michael Howard, The Guardian

Tuesday September 5, 2006

Mohammed Abbas still isn't sure why he was plucked from the street by a group of armed men, some wearing police uniforms, to be interrogated and tortured for five days.

He had never been involved in politics, he steered clear of crime, and he kept his religious views to himself. His family was not particularly well-heeled.

But perhaps it was the 34-year-old engineer's refusal to play for a local soccer team run by members of Moqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia that made him a target. Certainly, the repeated hammer blows to his knees during his ordeal has meant that Mr Abbas - a popular figure on Baghdad's football scene, a former member of Iraq's youth squad, and an avid Manchester United fan - may never play again. Now in hiding in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mr Abbas (not his real name) said: "I must be very careful because I still have family in Baghdad and I just don't know who exactly took me."

Like many other dazed residents caught up in Baghdad's dirty war, Mr Abbas may never know. His story is not exceptional: it is repeated with variations between 30 and 40 times each day in Baghdad.

And he is not the only sportsman to be targeted. Yesterday police said another popular football player had been kidnapped in Baghdad by people dressed in military uniforms.

Ghanim Ghudayer, 22, considered one of the best players in Baghdad's Air Force Club, had recently signed a one-year contract with a club in Syria and had been planning to leave Iraq within a few days.

Iraqi sports officials and athletes have frequently faced threats, kidnappings and killings.

"There is a general feeling of fear among the players after the terrorists start targeting them," Samir Kadhim, head of the Air Force Club, said. "Some of them are not coming to training, some are not completing their training. From our side we are encouraging them but still they have fears."

He said some soccer players were trying to get contracts abroad in order to leave the country. In July, Iraq's national soccer coach, Akram Ahmed Salman, resigned after receiving death threats against him and his family. Earlier that month, gunmen kidnapped the chairman of Iraq's National Olympic Committee and at least 30 other officials, including the presidents of the taekwondo and boxing federations, in a brazen daylight raid on a sports conference in Baghdad.

Despite a recent flurry of statements from senior Iraqi, US and British officials claiming that the ongoing joint military offensive against death squads and sectarian militias in Baghdad was bearing fruit, violence still terrorises many parts of the capital and country.

It is widely believed that many kidnappings are carried out by police and other security forces, whose ranks have been infiltrated by sectarian militias, insurgents and criminal gangs. Ordinary Iraqis such as Mohammed Abbas have become increasingly pessimistic.

Since the fall of the regime in 2003, Mr Abbas had done his best to keep his head down and work for his community. He had organised soccer games for youth in the poor Shia neighbourhoods east of the Tigris river. Aspiring players regarded him as their mentor. Young women apparently found the good-looking midfielder irresistible. Mr Abbas's kidnappers apparently became infuriated by the number of calls made to his mobile phone by female admirers.

His skills attracted the attention of a rival team from Sadr City, loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. "At first they asked me to come and play for their team. I said no," he recalled. "Then they insisted. Then they threatened."

One Saturday morning in mid-July, Mr Abbas drove to a game he had organised on the edge of the Sadr City district. He pulled up outside the ground and reached over to the glove compartment to retrieve the team list. As he did so, the driver's door was yanked open behind him. "I turned and looked straight into the barrel of a gun," he said. "It was being brandished by a man in police uniform and there were at least another 20 men surrounding my car." Some were in uniform, some wore dark suits without ties, and some were masked. All were armed. Mr Abbas felt somebody tugging at his shirt, trying to haul him out of his vehicle. "I was about to ask them what they wanted from me when there was a sudden blow on my head."

He regained consciousness in the boot of a car. His hands and feet were bound; a mask had been pulled over his head and there was something stuffed in his ears. A plaster across his mouth stifled any attempts to shout for help.

When they reached their destination, his interrogation began. "How many mosques have you blown up? How many Husseiniya [Shia mosques] have you blown up? How many Sunnis have you killed? How many Shia have you killed? Where do you make roadside bombs?"

Mr Abbas said all he did was work and play football and that he had never hurt anyone. After several days of being questioned and beaten, his captors told him he would be handed over to security in Sadr City. "I knew that meant the Mahdi army. I couldn't believe that things could get worse. I was in severe pain and just wanted to die."

There were more beatings, but his new captors seemed more interested in money than anything else. "They demanded my family pay $200,000 (ú105,000) or I would be killed. I said we had nowhere near that amount, so you may as well kill me now."

Eventually, they settled on a figure of $10,000, a sum which has put his family in debt. As Mr Abbas prepared to flee Baghdad, a call came from the Mahdi army soccer team asking him to turn out for a match the following weekend.

Sipping tea in the relative safety of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, he said: "Baghdad is heading for disaster." Trust - particularly in the security forces - has broken down. "When you are stopped by someone in uniform you have no idea whether they are there to protect you or kill you," he said. "Life in Baghdad has become so cheap."

Ě Additional reporting by Qais al-Bashir, Associated Press, in Baghdad

:: Article nr. 26401 sent on 05-sep-2006 05:05 ECT


Link: But perhaps it was the 34-year-old engineer\'s refusal to play for a local socce
   r team run by members of Moqtada al-Sadr\'s al-Mahdi militia that
    made him a target. Certainly, the repeated hammer blows to his k
   nees during his ordeal has meant that Mr Abbas - a popular figure on Baghdad\'s ...

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