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IRAQ: Girls go to war, on the sports field

April 30, 2008 |  9:50 am

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Najaf is best known for its holy Shiite shrines and lately for the fear and intrigue that have taken hold among its religious leaders as different factions compete for power and influence over Iraq's Shiite south. But this week, it has become the center of a different kind of competition: among girls and young women vying for athletic awards from the minister of education.

The eight-day competition began April 26 and has brought teams from 11 southern and central provinces to compete in volleyball and soccer. Suaad Saqab Kamil, who oversees women's sports in the Ministry of Education, said it's the first time the competition has been held since the start of the war five years ago.

Kamil admitted the teams are not up to the standards one might hope, but she hopes with training and support, that will change. The best surprise, she said, has been the encouragement of fans, who participants feared might create problems given this city's religiously conservative nature. As we wrote recently, women's sports face huge obstacles in Iraq,  due to insecurity, inadequate financial support and the growing influence of hard-line Shiite Muslims.

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But that is not deterring women. An American woman has been hired to help develop Iraq's national women's basketball team. And Kamil said the fans, male and female, who have been flocking to the Najaf Technical Institute show that Iraqis are more open to the idea of female athletics than many might have thought. "We haven't faced any harassment whatsoever," said Kamil.

The volleyball coach for the team from Babil province, Asmaa Turkey, said she hadn't expected such openness in this holy city. Another Babil coach, Khudhair Jassim Shimmeri, said there had been rumors that some elements of Najaf society would object to holding the competition there. They feared harassment if too many fans showed up.

"But we found the opposite," she said. "Najaf people are supporting their women's team."

"What we are seeing is a beautiful thing," said Umm Zeena, whose daughter plays on the Amarah volleyball team.

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"I am coming to encourage my daughter and her team. I'm proud she participates," said Umm Zeena, using a nickname that identifies her as the mother of Zeena. She had just one complaint: The auditorium was not air-conditioned, and the girls were sweating so much that their skin shriveled, "like pieces of pickles!" she exclaimed as the crowd cheered.

—Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf

Photos by Saad Fakhrildeen

"If Merlin were here today, there is no doubt what he would say: Fight through, stay strong and overcome _ because we are warriors," Army Brig. Gen. James Gilman, commander of the Brooke center, told the San Antonio Express-News after German's death.

Gilman's words were taken from a T-shirt that German wore as he encouraged other patients to never give up.

—Tony Perry, in San Diego

Photo: Marine Sgt. Merlin German. Photo Credit: Associated Press

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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