Baghdad: Iraq moved closer towards suspension from soccer world body FIFA on Saturday after failing to elect a new president following political bickering.
A political power struggle has paralysed Iraq`s soccer federation, highlighting sectarian divisions in the country seven years after the U.S.-led invasion and three years after a multi-ethnic Iraqi squad triumphed in the Asia Cup.
The government of Shi`ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been trying to remove top officials from sport bodies suspected of ties to the Sunni-led former regime of Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi Football Association president Hussain Saeed, who once was a senior official of the Olympic Committee controlled before 2003 by Saddam`s feared son Uday, is facing a challenge from Falah Hassan, who is backed by the Shi`ite-led government. Both are ex-stars in the Iraqi national team.
The federation was due to elect a new president on Saturday but the vote was postponed until Sunday after only a minority of the 63 delegates showed up in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where FIFA had insisted the vote take place on security grounds.
A majority had gathered in Baghdad where the government wanted to hold the election to showcase improved security after the height of the sectarian warfare in 2006-07. Bombings and other attacks still occur regularly in the capital.
Saeed accused the government of intervening in the federation`s affairs, urging members to attend Sunday`s meeting in Arbil which would go ahead regardless of how many attended.
"I request members of the assembly who did not attend the Arbil meeting, who have been subjected to pressure, to attend tomorrow to participate in the elections," he told Reuters, warning that Iraq needed to avoid another international ban.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting he also appealed Maliki to stop "intervening" by preventing some members of the federation from participating in the election assembly in Arbil.
FIFA requires governments to refrain from meddling in soccer federation affairs, and has already twice suspended Iraq, lifting the latest ban only in March on condition the federation agreed on a road map to new elections.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declined to comment on Saeed`s accusations.
Saeed`s deputy Najeh Hmoud said in Baghdad the vote should be held in the capital where most delegates were gathered.
"Choosing Baghdad as the venue is the choice of the federation, not any other party. What matters is to save Iraqi soccer from problems that happened," he said in televised remarks.
In November, Iraq were banned for the second time in 18 months after the country`s Olympic committee disbanded their football association (IFA) and government security forces seized control of the federation`s headquarters.
The bickering has hit Iraq`s performance after hiring a succession of coaches and failing to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa. Last year, FIFA allowed Iraq to host its first friendlies since 2003. Iraq beat Palestine in two matches played in Arbil and Baghdad.