Saddam's athletes tripped up at visa hurdle

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The Independent Online
On the front of their bus, next to a photograph of Saddam Hussein wearing a stylish Bavarian hat, a handwritten notice declared the visitors to be "the elite of the Iraqi soccer team". The second bus, filled with Iraqi shot-putters, weightlifters and runners, bore a more peculiar portrait of the leader of the Arab Socialist Baath Party of Iraq: Saddam in a turban, inspecting a pot of meat on a domestic cooking stove while dropping in for a chat with local Baghdad residents.

The Lebanese, however, did not take so kindly to the 97 Iraqi athletes in their blue track-suits who dropped in to visit them yesterday. For after travelling for three days across the Iraqi and Syrian deserts to participate in Beirut's pan-Arab games, the sportsmen and women of Baghdad, Kirkuk and Basra were met by that most familiar of all pan-Arab greetings: no visa.

"I will tell you something," one of them muttered to me darkly. "This is a game." Indeed it was. And Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were winning - though they were not the only players; Syria, Turkey, Israel, even the United States had their indirect role to play in the plight of the Iraqis marooned beside the frontier rubbish-tip at Masnaa.

Surrounded by old tyres, rusting Pepsi cans and crushed cigarette packets, they prayed towards Mecca on their little rugs, or sat perspiring in their buses or paraded before the local television cameras in their tracksuits, brandishing the red-white-and-black Iraqi flag. But no way would the Lebanese frontier guards open the road to Beirut and the shiny new sports stadium where President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon will today launch the pan-Arab games.

Dr Mohamed Ridha, the Iraqi track coach (educated University of Colorado) asked why the Arab League had invited his team to the games without ensuring visas for them at the border. "Lebanon should say `our country is your home - we want to show you our hospitality'," he complained. "You know, it's not good to leave all these nice athletes under the sun here, without water, without anything. It's very miserable."

The problem, of course, is that just seven years ago, the Iraqis turned up unexpectedly on another border in rather larger numbers. And when Kuwait decided that it was not Saddam's home, the Iraqi army invaded the emirate which now - liberated by America and its allies but still furious at Iraq's failure to return 600 missing citizens - has no intention of running, jumping or even standing still beside its former tormentors, especially in a stadium partly built with Kuwaiti money. Saudi Arabia, which footed another sixth of the bill, felt the same way about it.

Not that the athletes looked very threatening. Dr Sadik Thiab, president of the Iraqi Weightlifting Federation, turned out to be a grey-haired graduate of Syracuse University. And 18-year-old Maissa Hussein, a petite track athlete with a pig-tail who had won a bronze at the Asian Games in Indonesia two years ago, did nothing more bellicose than smile at the cameras with an Iraqi flag draped fetchingly round her shoulders.

Said Abdul-Hussein, a boxing coach, insisted that the Iraqis merely wished to show "Arab solidarity and Arab brotherhood, translated into action at the games".

True, a few of the Iraqi athletes looked rather paunchy, nursing the kind of beer-bellies that might seem more familiar on ... well, on Iraqi secret service agents. But there was no doubting the sympathy of the locals. Syrian taxi drivers waved cheerfully at the stranded athletes, punching the air with their fists. And Syria, supposedly not on speaking terms with Iraq, had given the athletes an unprecedented open visa when they turned up on the closed Iraqi-Syrian border on Thursday.

No one would explain why, but it wasn't difficult to guess. As Syria has grown ever more critical of Turkey's new military relationship with Israel - Israeli fighter-pilots can now fly in Turkish airspace north of the Syrian border - so Damascus has been opening up economic and cultural ties with Iraq. And how better to signal its continued warmth towards Baghdad - and refusal to accept an Israeli-Turkish military strangulation - than to let the 97 Iraqis travel towards Lebanon? If the Americans - enthusiastic supporters of the Israeli-Turkish alliance - did not like it, so much the better.

Back at the Lebanese border yesterday afternoon, the Iraqi athletes were counting the medals they still hoped to win at the games they cannot attend. Five golds with a spread of silvers and bronzes, they thought, with just a hint of Saddamite exaggeration. Asel Tabra, the head of the Iraqi delegation, had gone off to demand - at the least - a document which formally forbad the Iraqis entry. No such luck. For the Iraqis have not been refused permission to enter Lebanon; they just did not have visas. If only it was always that simple.