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Iraq picks Olympic chief

A former star athlete and defector was unanimously elected to head Iraq's Olympic committee Thursday, promising to sweep away "the painful past" of his predecessor, Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who reportedly tortured players when they displeased him.

Ahmed al-Sammarai is a former general who returned last year after 20 years in exile. He and other officers were voted onto the Iraqi National Olympic Committee during balloting by sports officials at this northern Iraqi mountain lake resort.

The selection of Sammarai _ along with three vice presidents, a secretary general, a treasurer and five executive committee members _ could pave the way for Iraqi athletes to compete in the Summer Games in Athens, Greece, if the International Olympic Committee lifts the suspension imposed after Hussein's regime collapsed in April.

"We will not forget the painful past and we'll not allow what happened to be repeated," Sammarai said after his uncontested election. "We will build swimming pools and stadiums in place of prisons and torture chambers."

Sammarai, a former basketball and track star, said the "historic elections" show "how far Iraq has come in the last nine months" since the fall of Hussein's dictatorial rule.

Representatives of the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other Olympic organizations attended the election, held for security reasons in this remote resort about 45 miles northwest of Sulaimaniyah.

The area is controlled by ethnic Kurds, America's closest allies among Iraq's 25-million people.

The IOC delegation will report on the proceedings to its executive board at its next meeting Feb. 27 in Athens, where the international committee may decide to lift the Iraqi suspension and allow Iraqi athletes to compete.

A number of Iraqi athletes have been identified as the most likely to qualify for the Olympics, mainly in track and field, swimming, boxing, weightlifting, wrestling and taekwondo. The IOC will organize training camps to allow these athletes to prepare for the games.

Many Iraqi athletes suffered when Uday Hussein ran the Olympic program. He reportedly maintained a jail and torture chamber in the basement of the national Olympic committee headquarters in Baghdad for athletes he disliked.

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