Iraq's soccer election split between 2 cities

Published Jul. 24, 2010 6:45 p.m. ET

Iraqi Football Association members held dueling meetings in two cities to elect a new president Saturday, risking a FIFA ban from international competition due to government interference.

The meetings were the latest development in the ongoing drama surrounding who will lead the governing body of the country's most popular sport. The battle reflects the sectarian tensions prevalent in a country where just a few years ago Sunnis and Shiites were battling in the streets.

Soccer officials backing the government's candidate, a Shiite, met in Baghdad, while supporters of the incumbent, a Sunni, gathered in the Kurdish city of Irbil, along with observers from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.

An official from the Iraqi association, Abdul-Khaliq Massoud, told The Associated Press that they had failed to get a quorum in Irbil and the vote was postponed until Sunday.

The Baghdad meeting was also delayed until Sunday. The deputy president of the Association, Najeh Hamoud, said the postponement was designed so soccer representatives in Baghdad could consult with officials in Irbil and try to convince them to come to Baghdad, along with the observers.

Hamoud said the decision not to rush the vote underlined the officials' keen awareness of ''a big responsibility'' they have for Iraq's soccer - the only uniting factor for Iraqis during the worst years of sectarian bloodshed that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2005 and 2007.

''Football has been able to bring all Iraqis out on the streets ... to cheer in one voice for Iraq,'' Hamoud said.


FIFA chose Irbil to stage the vote after deeming Baghdad too unsafe to send international observers to monitor it. But Iraq's government insisted on holding it in Baghdad as a way of showing the country is stable after years of war.

Forty-three of the association's 63 members attended the Baghdad meeting. Most members said the capital was safe. They felt FIFA tried to impose its will on Iraq by choosing Irbil for the vote, although nobody - including the main challenger of the association's current president - wanted a confrontation with FIFA and the risk of a ban.

''We have the right to hold the election in Baghdad. We don't want to go head-to-head with FIFA. We know how strong they are,'' said the Shiite candidate for the presidency, Falah Hassan.

FIFA has warned Iraq it will be banned if the government interferes with the election. Last year, Iraq was suspended for five months after Iraq's Olympic Committee dissolved the association because of alleged financial and administrative irregularities and the repeated delaying of internal elections. The ban was lifted in March.

FIFA's representative at the Irbil meeting, Nidhal al-Hadidi, warned against meetings being held in other locations.

''FIFA chose Irbil for the meeting,'' he said, adding that any other meeting ''outside Irbil is considered illegal and illegitimate according to FIFA's point of view.''

Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has long wanted to purge sports of any officials with alleged ties to the deposed Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein.

The Sunni candidate to run the association, Hassan Saeed, is a former striker for Baghdad's al-Talaba club and he is ranked 10th on FIFA's list of players with the most international caps. But critics allege he has ties to the former regime and is suspected of corruption.

Hassan, a 60-year-old Shiite from Baghdad's slum of Sadr City and a former captain of Iraq's best team, al-Zawra, is Saeed's main rival for soccer's top job in Iraq.

In one indication of how high the tension has been raised, men in military-style uniforms raided the federation's offices on Sunday carrying arrest warrants for several of its officials, including Saeed. The government denied any responsibility for the raid.


Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.