The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Baghdad’s outrage bobs up in Bhopal

Bhopal, Oct. 2: The coach and manager of the Iraqi kayaking and canoeing team has a message for the US President — pull US forces out of Iraq quickly and hand the country over to Iraqis or face the consequences.

“Saddam Hussain was not liked by a great many. But today, in Iraq, there is not a single person in favour of the American troops. Their mere presence tests Iraqi pride and nationalism,” says Abdul Salam Dawood, now camping in Bhopal with his team for the ongoing Asian Kayaking and Canoeing meet.

Dawood lauds the sagacity of the Indian political leadership in not sending troops to Iraq. He has a healthy respect for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi though he knows little about them.

“India and Iraq have long, historical ties. In post-war era, any force other than the national army is seen as an occupational force. So nationality (of troops) is of no consequence. It will meet the same degree of hostility,” Dawood says, through a hired interpreter.

Saddam’s regime, he says, may have throttled democracy but there was “peace and order” for the average Iraqi. “Today, nobody can venture out at night. There are frequent incidents of theft, looting and violence which were unheard of in our society.”

He cites the troubles of his team, which was forced to abandon its twice-daily practice sessions. “First, the river in which we used to practice was taken over by the US Marines and we were forced to shift to a lake.” The long travel and the worsening law and order added to the team’s woes.

Dawood says he is “no fan” of Saddam but he believes much of the western propaganda against the dictator had no basis.

The coach, who was a swimmer once and is now also a mathematics teacher, described as exaggerated reports of torture of sportspersons by Uday, Saddam’s elder son.

He agreed that Uday had ordered the players to shave their heads in shame when Iraq lost in the football world cup. “But that was understandable if you see it in the context of the national football side being weighed in gold after victory,” Dawood said.

His team has already won a silver and a bronze in Bhopal after landing here on three days’ notice. The Baghdad-to-Bhopal journey was a pain, he says, spread as it was over three days — first by road to Amman, then to Abu Dhabi, UAE, before flying to Mumbai and on to Bhopal.

Tomorrow, Dawood hopes to win gold for his country — which he says is too proud to be governed by any “occupational force”.

Enthusiastically interrupting the interpreter with his smattering of English, Dawood says “there was no religious freedom in Iraq during the Saddam era. Today, a number of groups and sub-groups have mushroomed”.

He believes the democratic process would restore normality to Iraq as “everybody wants to have a say in elections”.

Iraq, he emphasises, has no streak of fundamentalism or religious intolerance. Iraqis, instinctively, have no sympathy for fundamentalism and its proponents.

“There is no support for intolerance in Iraq,” Dawood says. There is no need to talk of extremist outfits such as al Qaida as the world knows about them, he adds.

Asked if he was scared of speaking out, Dawood said with a smile: “I thought the Americans were great democrats. And freedom of speech is an essential ingredient of democracy.”

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