ATHENS — They're the darlings of the Summer Games and just one win away from a medal. But now Iraq's Olympic soccer players, and many of their fans, are complaining that their team has become a political football in President Bush's reelection campaign.
The problem began when Bush decided to share in the good fortunes of the Iraqi club, which is competing in its first Olympics in more than a decade. After enduring torture under the regime of Saddam Hussein and overcoming hardships such as the loss of their German coach -- who fled when militants began abducting Westerners -- the team has advanced to tonight's semifinal game with Paraguay.
As the team racked up victories in its first-round matches, Bush began to mention the club in his stump speeches, holding it up as an example of his success in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. His campaign produced an Olympic-themed TV commercial showing a swimmer and the flags of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In 1972, there were 40 democracies in the world. Today, 120," the ad says. "And this Olympics there will be two more free nations. And two fewer terrorist regimes."
But some of Iraq's players say they resent the use of the team as a prop in the presidential campaign. Especially among other Arab states, the Iraqi team has struggled to be recognized on its own merit and not as a creation of American occupiers.
"Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," soccer player Salih Sadir told the website of Sports Illustrated magazine over the weekend, after demanding that U.S. troops get out of Iraq. "He can find another way to advertise himself."
His teammate Ahmed Manajid was equally forceful: "How will [Bush] face his god after having slaughtered so many men and women?" he asked. "He has committed so many crimes."
And after Iraq's defeat of Australia on Saturday, coach Adnan Hamad Majeed criticized Bush for "helping to destroy our country." He said that "we will never believe that Bush is with us."
Iraqi fans, too, are angry.
"A lot of people are very upset," Iraqi businessman Samir Ganni, who has been organizing caravans of fans to Iraq's games, said Monday. "These victories are not because of Bush but because of our efforts and hard work. Some of the players are very unhappy with this and said if they weren't in sports they would be fighting the Americans, like their relatives."
The U.S. Olympic Committee has also raised concerns about the campaign ad, saying it may have violated copyright laws restricting general use of the name "Olympics" as well as rules against using the Games to promote a political candidate.
Bush's campaign is defending the ad.
"We're very proud of that ad," campaign director Ken Mehlman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." The creation of what he called two new democracies, Iraq and Afghanistan, is "something all Americans should be proud of. It's not about politics. It's about the fact that our nation has been successful in helping spread freedom all around the world."
By Monday, Iraqi athletes apparently had been ordered to keep quiet about the controversy. At a news conference with Iraq's soccer coach in Thessaloniki, where the Paraguay match will take place, a FIFA official instructed reporters not to pose political questions.
Afterward, the leader of the Iraqi Olympic team, Tiras Odisho Anwaya, issued a plea to keep politics out of his game. "We don't want to bother with these things now," he said. "We are trying to concentrate on the championship."
But Majeed, asked at the news conference about the Bush campaign ad and accompanying furor, said: "We cannot separate politics and sports."
Indeed, keeping the two things separate is not a simple matter. The U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. State Department and other international donors have paid to train, outfit and transport the Iraqi competitors. And Iraqi athletes have expressed gratitude to the United States for removing Hussein and his son Uday, who ran the nation's Olympic committee and ordered players beaten or imprisoned if their performances disappointed him. Uday was killed last year by U.S. forces.
But anti-American sentiment among many Iraqis remains high as violence convulses the country, more than 140,000 U.S. troops remain there and reconstruction efforts make slow progress in improving people's lives.
Anger among Iraqis grew when rumors circulated that Bush would attend the championship game this week if Iraq made it to the finals. (The presidents of the countries in soccer finals traditionally attend the event.) Then an official with the Iraqi Olympic Committee told the Los Angeles Times that the soccer team had been asked to display Afghanistan's flag along with its own banner at Iraq's final game but refused.
A State Department official said she had no knowledge of a request about Afghanistan's flag. Bush's campaign officials said the president was not planning to attend the Olympics, although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to travel to Athens this weekend.
As the soccer semifinal approaches, fans in Iraq are keeping close tabs on their team and hoping the political controversy blows over soon.
"The soccer team should not be used for an election campaign," said Mohammed Huthaifa, a 23-year-old engineer in Baghdad who has been watching the soccer games on TV. "I think it is better to keep politics far from sports. The team went there representing Iraq, not President Bush."
Mohammed Arrawi of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.