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In Iraq, ex-sports stars seek to shake up politics

© AFP / by Khalil Jalil | Men look at a campaign poster of Basil Gorgis, a former Iraqi footballer, in a street in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region

BAGHDAD (AFP) - 

In the sweltering heat of Mexico '86, Ahmed Radhi and Basil Gorgis pulled on the same jerseys to represent Iraq's football team in its sole World Cup Finals.

But now, a third of a century later, they're just two of several former stars taking part in a very different contest -- as parliamentary candidates in next month's election.

While the World Cup adventure ended in dismal failure, with Iraq crashing out after losing all three of its group games, the ex-players' appeal could be a big draw for some Iraqi voters.

"They already have fans," says Hussein Hassan, a 45-year-old Baghdad resident. "It's now the turn of these stars to put themselves at the service of the people."

Distrust of politicians ahead of the May 12 vote is high, with the 15 years since the US-led toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein marred by repeated periods of chaos and endemic corruption.

"We have more confidence in them than the politicians, who have changed nothing," Hassan says.

It's a view that Radhi, scorer of Iraq's only World Cup Finals goal, takes on board.

"Iraqis need someone who shows that they are focusing on their interests, and who will work to guarantee a decent life," the National Alliance candidate says.

The 54-year-old says his political group "brings together all communities and confessions."

The National Alliance is led by Iraq's Vice President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and parliamentary speaker Salim al-Juburi, a Sunni.

It's a union that seeks to move beyond Iraq's Shiite-Sunni ethnic cleavage -- a major pull for the ex-footballer.

The NA's list of candidates is liberal and "transcends confessionalism," he says. "This is what the people want now."

- 'Defending minority interests' -

Other candidates, sporting or otherwise, have more narrow motivations.

Radhi's former teammate Gorgis is among a list of candidates fielded by "Abna al-Rafideyn," a group bringing together Chaldean Christians, Assyrians and Syriacs.

Now administrator for the national team, Gorgis is running in the Kurdish city of Arbil and says he seeks to protect the interests of Christians.

Standing up for the rights of his community is also what motivates Chaker Mohammad Sabbar, another former player on Iraq's national soccer team.

The 50-year-old, who appeared in every position except goalkeeper during his career, is Sunni, a group that's played second fiddle to the majority Shiites since Saddam's fall.

Sabbar says loved ones cautioned against involvement in politics, telling him it would "achieve nothing, because no change is possible."

But their advice hasn't stopped him running as a candidate in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in central Iraq. Sabbar is number 10 on the list of the "Tamaddun" group, which advocates a secular state.

Sunni dominated Ramadi was seized by the Islamic State group in May 2015, before being retaken by government forces less than a year later.

"The people have suffered enormously," says Sabbar, whose family live in the region.

"Now, it's time our interests are defended, like those of other Iraqis," he adds.

- 'Better future for sport' -

Not all the former footballers running in the elections here are political novices.

Radhi stood in the 2014 poll and lost, while another ex-international, Hassan Farhan, is a politics and military science graduate.

"People now have more confidence in sportsmen than politicians, who have weakened the state," says 65-year-old Farhan, who appears on a list for the secular Civil Party.

Others are determined to ensure new investment in facilities, to help the country compete again internationally in a whole range of disciplines.

"We must think about building a better future for sport," says ex-international swimmer Sarmad Abdelilah, now a member of the National Olympic Committee and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's "Victory Alliance."

"There are no athletes in parliament and so there are no laws or institutions to structure Iraqi sport," he laments.

Other contenders include Taleb Faysal, the president of Iraq's weightlifting federation, who is on the list for former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's "Rule of Law Alliance."

But some citizens here don't buy into the appeal of sporting veterans.

"We have confidence in none of the candidates, because we know they will only think of themselves once in parliament," says Imane Kazem in the capital.

by Khalil Jalil

© 2018 AFP