Kuwait up in arms as Iraq joins Arab games

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The Independent Online
When Lebanon decided to host the eighth pan-Arab games, the new pounds 45m stadium in Beirut was supposed to provide further proof of Lebanon's post-war recovery and symbolise a greater sense of Arab unity. Or so its supporters fondly believed. But just when the Arabs thought it was safe to go back into the sporting arena ... along came the shadow of Saddam Hussein.

Poor old Arabs, you couldn't help thinking this week, as Saturday's marathon opening at the spanking new stadium threatened to turn into Gulf War Part II. For Iraq - whose Olympic pioneer is none other than the brutal and wounded Uday, son of Saddam - insists on participating as a brother nation, to the fury of Kuwait, the resentment of Saudi Arabia and the embarrassment of Lebanon itself. Kuwait, it will be remembered, enjoyed an uninvited fraternal visit from Saddam's legions in 1990 while Saudi Arabia received a few dozen of Saddam's Scud missiles as well as a mini-invasion by Iraq of its north-eastern corner. Lebanon, meanwhile, is not only desperate for further post-war financial assistance from the two Croesus-like Gulf kingdoms: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia happen to have stumped up one-third of the pounds 45m needed to build a spanking new stadium.

The result was as predictable as it was dramatic. Kuwait announced it will boycott any sports - and 2,000 athletes from at least 20 Arab nations are participating in soccer, basketball, swimming, tennis, shooting, wrestling and gymnastics - in which the Iraqis are playing. If Iraq's teams even turned up, according to Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahed al-Sabah, the head of the Kuwait Olympic committee, Kuwait's 277 athletes would march around the track at the opening ceremony waving photographs of the 600 Kuwaiti prisoners kidnapped by Iraq and never released after the liberation of the emirate in 1991.

It was the Arab League which blithely invited the Iraqis to attend the games; Lebanon - which only recently hosted Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a state guest - did not. But Iraq says the league's invitation has been accepted even though Lebanon has just left Baghdad's team off the list of participants. And after Monday's draw for soccer, volleyball and basketball did not include Iraq's name, Uday Hussein's newspaper, Babel, raged that the Beirut games' organising committee was "a toy in the hands of those who have the power of money, thinking that by this power they can scratch the name of Iraq out of the records".

Lebanon broke off diplomatic relations with Iraq after Baghdad's Beirut embassy staff assassinated an important Iraqi opposition leader in Beirut. The ambassadors of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have now said they hope Lebanon will prevent any Iraqi participation. So a country of only three-and-a- half million people which still hosts at least 26,000 soldiers from two superpower neighbours on its soil, is now supposed to bring about a ceasefire between participants of the Gulf War.

Even holding the games has been a brave venture for Lebanon; originally scheduled for 1996, they were postponed after Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" blitz on the country, while Arab promises to fund the stadium were honoured only by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon has to find the remaining pounds 29m - quite a price to pay for allowing Iraq to play the game.