January 17, 2008 / 2:21 AM / 10 years ago

Iraq Paralympians take peace message to Beijing

<p>A Paralympics table tennis player Suhair Abdul-Amir (R) practises during a training session in Baghdad December 10, 2007. Suhair is the only woman in a team of three that will take part in the 2008 Beijing Paralymypic Games.Thaier al-Sudani</p>

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fakher al-Jamali has lost nine athletes, referees and coaches to suicide bombs and gunfire by radical Islamists and U.S. soldiers.

Their deaths make the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing more than a sporting event for him.

"We will convey a message of love and peace to the peoples of the world that Iraq loves life, loves peace and wants to live in peace," said Jamali, secretary-general of the Iraqi Paralympics Committee.

"We are determined to move on despite the martyrdom of our dear brothers."

The deaths, and the threat of bombings, have not stopped 31 athletes from negotiating their way three times a week from their homes to training grounds across Baghdad to prepare for the Paralympics, which will be held after the August Olympic Games.

They have to cope not only with indiscriminate violence but also with living in a community that offers few, if any, special services for disabled people.

"I have visited 66 countries and in all of them people with disabilities can move around without help because all the custom-made services are there," Jamali said.

"Unfortunately, Iraq fought absurd wars and has around three million people with disabilities and the special equipment needed for them is scarce."

OFFICIALS KIDNAPPED

Jamali said one of the athletes killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was Qassem Matar who played goalball, a team game invented for blind participants. Ibrahim Abdullah, who coached the wheelchair basketball team, was killed by U.S. troops.

In July 2006, the then Iraqi Olympic Committee chief Ahmed al-Hadjiya and some 30 other sports officials were kidnapped from a Baghdad hall. Most have never been found.

In June, the decomposed bodies of at least 13 members of the Iraqi taekwondo squad were found more than a year after they had been kidnapped in an al Qaeda stronghold west of Baghdad.

During nearly five years of war and sectarian bloodshed, it was sport that prompted Iraqis to briefly cast aside their differences to rally round the national soccer team in their successful campaign to win the Asian Nations Cup in 2007.

Iraqi Paralympians are no strangers to success, either -- in the 2004 Athens Games, two powerlifters won silver and bronze medals. But the lack of training equipment and facilities made the challenge they faced in Beijing difficult, Jamali said.

"We do not have a single bus to take the players from their homes to the training," Jamali said in his office, decorated with pictures of himself with Hollywood action star Jackie Chan and with Iraqi athletes.

"Our swimmers cannot train in the winter. The swimming pool is very cold and we do not have heating fuel," he added.

MORALE HIGH

The athletics team train in a small park outside a Baghdad stadium that has no track.

"We suffer...because we have no fields dedicated to us," said coach Karim Mohammed, standing at the park with the sound of an ambulance and sporadic gunfire in the distance.

"The infrastructure is just not available."

Nevertheless, in a small room where the table tennis team train for the Paralympics, the difficulties failed to dampen the upbeat mood among the players.

"Despite the difficulties that we and the country are suffering, our morale is high and, God willing, we will raise the Iraqi flag high," Suhair Abdul-Amir, the only woman in a three-strong team for Beijing, said.

Mohammed, the athletics coach, echoed her sentiments.

"We qualified for Beijing in difficult circumstances," he said. "We have to achieve something. Qualifying is not enough."

Writing by Alaa Shahine, Editing by Clare Fallon

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