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Iraqis excited about Olympics, regret small team

Aug. 08, 2008, 1:48 p.m. (ET)

BAGHDAD (AP) Iraqis powered their generators and gathered with friends Friday as excitement grew over the Olympics. But many were disappointed that their national team was represented by only four athletes after a dispute with the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC suspended the Iraqi team in May over alleged government interference in Iraq's national committee.

The decision was reversed last month, allowing four - two rowers and two track and field athletes - of the original seven qualified athletes to compete. The three others missed deadlines for their sports because of the dispute.

"We are happy to share with the world in these joyful moments. But I am sad to see the big teams of many countries, while our country is left behind with one of the smallest teams in the Olympics," said Saif Osama, a 22-year-old Christian college student in Baghdad.

Omar Ali, a 35-year-old teacher from the Sunni district of Azamiyah, also expressed regret that Iraq wasn't better represented in the Beijing Games.

"We had hoped that our country will participate with a large team in order to get good results in the games. Our interest in the Olympics would have been greater," he said. "Anyhow, I will try not to miss the events they are in."

Many Iraqis said the games would provide a much-needed respite from security concerns and other problems that persist despite a steep decline in violence after more than five years of warfare.

"We have waiting eagerly for this world event. In Iraq, we are in desperate need for such issues in order to entertain ourselves and forget the miseries," said Ahmed Khadum, a 21-year-old college student in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Baladiyat.

He and five friends planned to watch the games every night and had collected enough money to run a generator throughout the competition to avoid the frequent power outages that plague Baghdad.

Many Iraqis said they would watch events with friends on TVs set up in cafes - a tradition that had been sharply curtailed during past sporting events because of fears of bombings.

Olympics fan Alaa Abbas, a 32-year-old student from Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, said he and his friends planned to gather in a cafe and stay up late to watch the competition.

"We are eager to watch the games," Abbas said.

Akram Kamil, a 31-year-old engineer in the capital, however, said he feared the security situation was still too fragile so he planned to watch the games at home "rather than risking a trip to the cafe."

Ali Muhsin, a 32-year-old education ministry employee, said he was hopeful the Iraqi athletes would perform well.

"I am happy that our athletes are participating in the Olympic games. I pray to God that our countrymen will win medals in their events," he said.