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New sports center helps Iraqi youths opt out of insurgency

With US Army support, the Adhamiya Sports Center in Baghdad helps kids become athletes.

Respite: Up to 1,000 children per week enjoy facilities, including a swimming pool, at this Baghdad sports center.

Tom A. peter

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As the residents of Baghdad enjoy a newfound quiet, some Iraqis are hoping that sports can help keep the peace. Former Iraqi athletes have opened a sports center for the youths of the Adhamiya neighborhood that they imagine will work much like the US inner-city sports programs that have helped reduce crime. But the Adhamiya Sports Center isn't worried about small-time criminal street gangs; it's trying to keep young men out of violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda, which recruits heavily in the area.

For just over a year, the Adhamiya Sports Center has offered programs in soccer, weight lifting, basketball, wrestling, and – since opening a pool in July – swimming. All activities are free, except for the swimming pool, which charges about $2.50 for a two- to three-hour pass. Each week, the center attracts between 700 and 1,000 young people.

In the midst of Iraq's present turmoil, investing in a sports complex may seem extravagant, but athletics have proven to be a powerful unifier here. During some of the most bitter fighting, the victory of the Iraqi national soccer team in the 2007 Asia Cup brought a moment of peace in which Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds celebrated together.

Farouk Chanchoon, a former Olympic boxer and board member at the center, hopes to encourage future international champions.

"I want to make them good enough for the Olympics, but more importantly I want them to see the world," says Mr. Chanchoon. "And if they can't be professional athletes, maybe they can coach, or become team managers, or pursue another career in sports."

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