Iraq: National Olympic Committee Election Date Set

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BAGHDAD (AP) - Elections for a new National Olympic Committee for Iraq will be held March 14, a spokesman said Friday, capping a monthslong drama that nearly prevented the country from competing
in the Beijing Games.

The March 14 date for sports officials to vote in new elections follows an agreement signed in Kuwait this week by the Iraqi government and Olympics officials, according to Muaanis Abdullah, a spokesman for Iraq's Youth and Sports Ministry.

The agreement spells out rules and procedures for "transparent and fair elections," Abdullah said.

The controversy began last summer when the Iraqi government disbanded the previous committee.

The government claimed that the previous panel was corrupt and frequently failed to achieve a quorum because most of its 11 members lived abroad.

But critics in Iraq charged that the Shiite-led government was merely trying to replace several Sunni holdovers from the Saddam Hussein-era Olympic Committee, which was once run by Saddam's feared eldest son, Odai.

Four members of the previous Iraqi committee, including its Sunni chairman, Ahmed al-Sammarai, were kidnapped on July 15, 2006 amid raging sectarian violence at the time. Their fates remain unknown.

The International Olympic Committee criticized the government's move as interference in the work of the independent organization and suspended Iraq's national team in May.

A compromise later allowed Iraqi participation in the Olympics. But entry deadlines for some sports had passed, so only four athletes were able to compete.

The controversy surrounding the team was a sharp contrast to the Athens Games in 2004, when the Iraqi athletes were greeted with a
roaring ovation at the opening ceremony - the first since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)