BAGHDAD, (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.
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 effect 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 despite the precarious security situation.
But athletes and sports officials have been frequent targets of violence.
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. 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 U.S. efforts to build a democratic system after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
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 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Ten people — most of them women and children — were wounded 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 155 miles north of the Iraqi capital, police said. The officer was not home.
On Sunday, two Iraqis were killed and four wounded in an incident involving a U.S. military convoy in a southern province, American officials said. Local officials said the soldiers had opened fire randomly.
A spokesman for the Muthanna provincial council said that U.S. soldiers in a convoy opened fire Sunday on a group of cars on the highway between the cities of Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, and Rumaitha to the north.
Shakir al-Ajibi described the act as “criminal and brutal” and said the provincial council had decided to cut ties with U.S. officials and reconstruction teams in protest. He also claimed five cars and a truck carrying sheep were burned and said the provincial governor had called on the Iraqi government to start an investigation.
The statement issued jointly by the U.S. military and the U.S. Embassy gave few details but expressed “deep regret” for the deaths and promised the incident was being fully investigated.
The military promised to work closely with the families of those killed as well as tribal and government leaders in Muthanna “to convey our deep regret and ensure the families of those killed, and those who were injured, are properly cared for.”
Muthanna was the first province to be handed over by the U.S. military to Iraqi authorities last year. Convoys often travel through the area en route from neighboring Kuwait.