LAUSANNE, Switzerland, (AP) – The International Olympic Committee agreed Tuesday to allow Iraq to participate in the Beijing games, reversing itself after Baghdad pledged to ensure the independence of its national Olympics panel.
The decision followed last-minute talks between Iraqi officials and the IOC ahead of Wednesday’s deadline to submit competitors’ names for track and field events. The Olympics begin Aug. 8.
Iraq is now expected to send two athletes to Beijing to compete in track and field. The decision came too late for five other hopefuls in archery, judo, rowing and weightlifting. The deadline to submit names for those sports expired last week.
Iraq’s National Olympic Committee was dissolved by the Baghdad government in May, prompting the IOC to suspend the Mideast country from the Olympics for political interference.
The IOC had insisted the old committee be reinstated even though four members were kidnapped two years ago. Their fates remain unknown.
The agreement worked out Tuesday calls for Iraq to hold free elections for its national Olympic committee under international observation.
“The National Olympic Committee will have fair elections before the end of November,” said Pere Miro, head of the IOC’s department for relations with national Olympic committees.
In the meantime Iraq’s Olympic organization will be run by an interim committee proposed by its national sports federations and approved by the IOC, he said.
“We want to forget all the past,” Iraq’s government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press after signing the agreement at a news conference. “We want to have real representation for the Iraqi teams and the Iraqi supporters.”
The breakthrough came after eight hours of talks Tuesday at the IOC’s headquarters in Lausanne involving Miro and Husain al-Musallam, director-general of the Olympic Council of Asia.
Hours before the talks, a delegation of Iraqi groups in Switzerland came to IOC headquarters to deliver a letter to Olympic officials expressing dismay at their country’s suspension and requesting the decision be overturned.
The IOC last suspended Iraq in May 2003 — weeks after U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. That ban occurred after the IOC learned of the abuse of athletes by Saddam’s son Uday, the country’s former Olympic chief.
The suspension was lifted a year later, allowing Iraq to take part in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens where it fielded 25 athletes.
Iraq’s soccer team made it to the semifinals, prompting celebrations throughout a country where sports fans have had little to cheer about in recent years as the war claimed the lives of athletes, coaches and staff.
The Olympic cycling coach, national wrestling coach, a soccer federation member and a prominent volleyball player have been killed, most in 2006 during the height of sectarian slayings.
The two athletes who will represent Iraq at Beijing have benefited from an IOC solidarity program that allowed them to train at sports facilities abroad, IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said.
Although the duo failed to meet the qualifications to go to Beijing, they were allowed to take part under the IOC’s wild card scheme designed to ensure every country is represented at the games.
The fact that they are unlikely to add to Iraq’s overall tally of one bronze medal since its first appearance at the Summer Olympics in 1948 is of no great concern, said al-Dabbagh.
“Sport is really important for us in Iraq right now,” he said. “It brings the people together.”