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Iraq's Sunni-Shiite Civil War

There is little doubt that, for 25-year-old footballer Salman Obaid, sport means health, vitality and integration. But for some extremists, sport means disrespect for modesty and the adoption of western values.

"My dream since childhood was to be a football player and this dream came true," said Obaid. "Unfortunately, it hasn't been easy -- I've received three threats accusing me of being a betrayer of Muslims."

Obaid is not alone: according to the Iraqi Sports Union (ISU) in Baghdad, nearly 70 athletes have been killed since the launch of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country in April 2003. "Today, we're targets for extremists, without having anything to do with politics or sectarian violence," said Obaid.

Nevertheless, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims -- which came to the fore in the wake of February's bombing of a revered Shiite shrine -- has even impacted athletics, with some players being targeted because of their origins. "In some cases, if a Sunni sportsman wins a game, he automatically becomes a target for Shiite militias or gangs," said ISU spokesman Sami al-Nahren. "And vice-versa."

On May 14, 19-year-old Mannar Mudhafar, one of the best soccer players on the popular Zawra team, was shot to death in the streets of the capital. "In football, we never faced these issues," said Ahmed Ibraheem, a player on the national team. "We've always worked as a team."

On May 29, another three athletes were killed after extremists distributed leaflets warning people in Sunni neighborhoods not to wear shorts, according to local police. "Wearing shorts is prohibited because it reveals parts of the body in violation of the principles of Islamic religion," the leaflets read.

"Instead of playing, they should join the fight against the occupation," said one source in defense of the practice, preferring anonymity. "It's not the time to run after a ball, but to run after a gun and defend our land."

Manham Kubba, secretary-general of the Iraqi Tennis Union, described such thinking as "absurd," warning that such actions would end up killing the future of national sport. "Killing three innocent civilians for wearing shorts is unacceptable, whatever their profession," said Kubba, "especially killing sportsmen for wearing a uniform."

Female athletes have also been targeted. Basketball player Samira Kubaissy was killed in January after being accused by extremists of un-Islamic behaviour.

As the World Cup 2006 is about to start, Iraqis -- traditionally known for being football fans -- are hoping not to miss out. Despite sectarian violence, power outages and fuel shortages, enthusiasm for football endures in a country that used to be a dominant regional force in the game. In 1986, Iraq qualified to compete in the World Cup in Mexico.

"Even the terrorists and militias will sit down to watch the cup," said Baghdad shopkeeper Jabbar Ali. "Hopefully, civilian casualties will fall during the matches."

© IRIN   [Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor   June 7, 2006   (

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