Iraq's rowers step out of shadow of death

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Not so very long ago, dead bodies were seen floating down the Tigris river every day in Baghdad, the macabre toll of fierce sectarian violence that brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Despite the ever-present menace, however, the men of the Iraq national rowing team continued to train on the water through some of the most violent periods in Iraq that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

These days the killings have declined markedly and the only obstacles that bar the rowers' path as they glide downstream are bridges and fishing boats.

As the evening light glistens on the surface in temperatures of 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit), rubble and battered buildings on each river bank bears witness to the war and violence that disfigured a city.

Although they lack the back-up and technological support that is a given for many of their international counterparts, Iraq's rowers feel that they have a shot of making it to the 2012 Olympics in London.

First up though is the World Cup being held in Lucerne, Switzerland, this Friday and Sunday.

As they adjust their strokes on the open, unguarded river, any of the six rowers would make a perfect sitting target for an accurate gunman, but despite almost daily killings and bombs in Baghdad the team is not worried.

"We have never been directly targeted," even at the height of the violence in 2006 and 2007, says Abdul Salam Dawud, who has been president of the Iraqi Federation of Rowing and Canoeing (IFRC) for the past 13 years.

"The attacks were widespread," in the wake of the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. "The streets were often blocked because of military operations and at one point we did not train for three months."

Flag-bearer of the lean, four-member Iraqi squad at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the rower Hamza Hussein, 34, is convinced that the "dangerous period has passed."

"The area is very safe, and most bridges are safe," he says, pointing to the massive silhouette of the defence ministry, 100 metres away, simultaneously trying to repair one of his oars with adhesive tape.

The rowers, however, should watch their backs as they train on the Tigris, according to Hussein.

"Beware the bridges and fishing boats," he says, noting that the river's current is unsuited for competitions meant to take place on flat water.

Before 2003, the team practised on an artificial lake in a park north of the capital, but the American military occupied it and established a base, leaving the rowers to look elsewhere.

There is a proposal to build a new artificial lake, according to the federation.

In the meantime, the rowers train between 5.00-7.00 am and 5.00-7.00 pm near the modest headquarters of the federation every day, in a Sunni quarter of Karkh district seen as a haven of fallen dictator Saddam Hussein's supporters.

There are four prefabricated buildings, one of them houses their boats and another is a gym where the six athletes work out. Below is a wooden pier.

"The journalists always ask me about the violence, but it is past," says rower Haidar Nozad.

"I want to think about the future," the 27-year-old adds, hoping again to experience the majestic occasion that is the Olympics.

Nozad paired up with Hussein at the 2008 summer Games and although they failed to make an impression - they finished last in the losers' final - the former's eyes still glisten when he recalls the occasion.

After this weekend's event in Lucerne, the primary objective for Nozad is the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in November, where he will compete in the single scull event, while Hussein opts for the coxless four.

They occasionally train on the calmer water of Lake Dukan in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, where they recently received the help of two American coaches.

And to improve their chances of competing with the best in Asia, three months training in the flat water of Boston is also expected.

"The plan in Switzerland is to check our level and measure ourselves against the Asian teams we'll face later in November," the best of whom are from China, Japan and Indonesia, says federation president Dawud.

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