Iraqi soccer players seek asylum in Australia

Soccer federation's secretary-general blames violence against athletes in country; ambush kills 3 policemen north of Baghdad.

Iraq soccer 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iraq soccer 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Three members of Iraq's Olympic soccer team and their assistant coach left the team during a trip to Australia and are seeking asylum in the country, Iraq's soccer federation said Monday. Meanwhile, Iraqi police said three officers were killed Monday in an ambush on their checkpoint northeast of Baghdad, and ten people were wounded when a car bomb exploded on the doorstep of a policeman's home near Beiji. The soccer federation's secretary-general, Tariq Ahmed, said the four disappeared at dawn Sunday from the home of colleagues in Australia, where they were staying after playing Australia's Olympic team a day earlier. They did not show up at the airport for their scheduled departure with the rest of their team a few hours later, he said. The assistant coach, Saadi Toma, later phoned team officials and told them he and the three players were seeking asylum in Australia, Ahmed said. "It's because of the deteriorated security situation and violence against athletes in Iraq," Ahmed told The Associated Press by telephone in Baghdad. "We all face the same danger, but it doesn't mean one should so easily abandon his team and defame his country's reputation," Ahmed said. He identified the players at Ali Mansour, Ali Khidhayyir and Ali Abbas, who was a member of Iraq's senior squad that won the Asian Cup this past summer. A spokeswoman for Australian Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said the players were still holding valid visas and had not applied for asylum in Australia. Regular visas are for three months, so the players would have some time before they need to submit asylum applications. She refused to identify the players. On Saturday, Australia beat Iraq 2-0 to move to the top of an Asian qualifying group for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Iraq is scheduled to play fellow group members Lebanon and Syria this week. "This will cause poor morale, and have a bad psychological affect on the other players," Ahmed said of the asylum request. "They should have waited until finishing the qualifying round, and then they could go wherever they want," he said. "This only shows disloyalty to the country," Ahmed said. Soccer is popular in Iraq, where the national team's successes in the past three years have provided a joyous distraction from the daily violence. When Iraq won the Asian Cup in July, Baghdad erupted in raucous street parties to celebrate the victory despite the precarious security situation. But athletes and sports officials have been frequent targets of violence - threats, kidnappings and assassination attempts that are either part of retaliatory violence between Shiites and Sunnis, or for ransom. Three members of Iraq's senior national soccer team refused to return home to Iraq after the Asian Cup victory. Team captain Younis Mahmoud, as well as players Nashat Akram and Hawar Mulla Mohammed, said they feared for their lives if they returned. The team practices and plays games outside Iraq. Also Monday, the head of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, returned home from Iran after undergoing another round of chemotherapy there for lung cancer. Al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, was diagnosed last May with lung cancer following tests in a Texas hospital but chose to be treated in neighboring Iran to remain close to his family. "Thanks to God, I am in good health condition. Doctors told me I have finished all the difficult treatment stages," al-Hakim told al-Furat TV, a channel run by his SIIC party, in an interview at his Baghdad office. Al-Hakim is a key player in Iraqi politics and, despite close ties to Iran, has been a major partner in US efforts to build a democratic system after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. He also heads the parliament's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes his SIIC, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and some independents. However, the bloc now has only 85 seats - a dramatic drop from the alliance's once held 130 seats in the 275-member assembly. While he was in Iran, al-Hakim said he met with Iranian officials to discuss what he called a "big improvement" in Iraq's security situation. "We discussed the role Iran can play to support the Iraqi people," al-Hakim said. Monday's attack on the police checkpoint wounded another officer and two civilians nearby, police said. The ambush took place at dawn in the Zaghinya area near Baqouba, the troubled capital of Diyala province. Baqouba lies 60 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. Ten people were wounded - mostly women and children - when a car bomb exploded in front of a police officer's house farther north in Albu-Jawari village, on the northern outskirts of Beiji, about 250 kilometers north of the Iraqi capital, police said. 1st Lt. Miyasser Hassan was not home when the bomb went off around 7:15 a.m., but his wife, mother, 14-year-old brother and 4-year-old son were injured, police said. Six other people who lived next door - including three women and a 13-year-old boy - were wounded by flying shrapnel, they said. The village has seen frequent attacks on members of the Iraqi security forces. Hassan, a Sunni, was believed to be targeted by Sunni militants who disapproved of his service in the police force.