Taekwondo Team Vanished Without a Trace

Times Staff Writer

The athletes disappeared two months ago, as if swallowed by the desert.

In all, there were 17 men -- youthful taekwondo competitors and coaches on their way to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, hoping for visas that would land them in a Las Vegas tournament. They were traveling in two of the GMC Suburban taxis that negotiate one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world: the searing desert highway between Baghdad and the border.

They vanished somewhere west of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where the heat beats down on dozens of bombed-out cars and trucks, steel skeletons that litter the roadway.

Four in the group, already members of the Iraqi national team, competed in Asia this year. But for many of the other young athletes, all from Baghdad's impoverished Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City, the trip to Las Vegas would be their first outside the Middle East.

But they never arrived in Amman. They didn't even make it to the border. They were kidnapped in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, a dangerous place for Shiites.

In the days after the kidnapping, word circulated that the abductors were demanding $100,000. Then, nothing. Publicly, at least, the kidnappers have been silent since, fueling fears that the team is dead and the ransom demand a hoax.

The fate of the athletes has been the subject of wild speculation.

"Sometimes we hear 20 rumors a day," Jamal Abdul Karim, who heads the Iraqi taekwondo association, said recently.

In a terrible twist, Karim himself was kidnapped Saturday, along with more than 30 other Iraqi sports officials, including the head of the Iraqi Olympic committee. Their fate was unknown.

Athletes are increasingly being targeted in the war. An Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players were shot and killed in May, ostensibly because they were wearing shorts in violation of a warning by Islamic extremists. Last July, the director of a karate association was slain, his body found floating in a river southeast of Baghdad.

"The message is clear," Karim said, in a chilling prophecy of his own abduction. "They want youth to stop practicing sport because terrorists know that sport is the one thing that has succeeded in Iraq."

Facts about the taekwondo team's disappearance are hard to come by. One rumor has it that the entire group was beheaded and buried in the desert. Another is that the athletes are moved every two weeks so U.S. and Iraqi forces won't find them.

One rumor is that the bodyguard of an Iraqi Olympic official was entrusted to hand over $100,000 in ransom to the kidnappers -- and got nothing in return. Ali Kassim, head of the team's Al Walla Athletic Club, said there even had been talk that the kidnappings were related to rivalries within the taekwondo community.

"I don't know who has the money," he said. "I don't know the details of how they handed over the money or who took the money. But we heard the money was paid."

Mostly, though, there has been silence. The lone voices are those of the athletes' relatives as they wait for any news. The families are largely poor and uneducated, holding down humble jobs in Sadr City. Almost daily, they seek word of the team, however flimsy the source.

One of the grim tasks they share is making the trip to the Baghdad morgue when they hear that a group of bodies is being delivered from the area where the men disappeared.

Zain Ali Kanoon, whose cousin Rasool was kidnapped, said relatives recently heard that many bodies were being transported from Ramadi, a western city where the fighting has been heavy.

"They said that of the 100 corpses, about 10 were wearing track suits," he said. "They rushed when they heard such news, and when they brought the bodies to the morgue, they discovered these dead bodies were not the taekwondo team."

Jabar Hannoun, the father of 24-year-old Haidar, is inconsolable.

"Before, if my son was away for one hour, I would follow to see where he is," Hannoun said. "Now it is more than 50 days. How do you think my condition is?"

Awatiff Uredy, whose son, Maher, is among the missing, said the government had promised to do everything possible, even pay ransom, to get the athletes back. But if there has been any progress, she said, the government is not sharing it with her.

"I pray to God and to the descendants of the prophet that he is still alive," she said, weeping. "He is my only son and I have no one to look after me but him. His father is dead, executed during Saddam's time in 1986."

Rabi Allawi said he had combed the western part of the country looking for clues to the whereabouts of his 28-year-old son, Wissam. But the leads have been sketchy at best.

"I talked to a restaurant owner about [100 miles] west of Baghdad who said someone told him they saw the two GMCs leave the highway and get onto a dirt road from there," he said, the frustration evident in his voice.

The man who tried to help the athletes realize their dream is deeply saddened by their disappearance. Iraq's taekwondo community deferentially refers to him as Mr. Nam. His full name is Sung Bok Nam, a Korean American from Pennsylvania who runs a T-shirt shop at Camp Victory, a U.S. base just outside Baghdad.

Nam, 61, who holds an 8th-degree black belt in taekwondo, said he moved to Iraq just after the war to help promote the sport. He said he helped the Iraqis prepare for the 2004 Olympics and traveled with the team during trips to Asia and Europe.

Several months ago, Nam said, some of the athletes from the Sadr City club approached him about competing outside the Middle East, preferably in the United States.

Nam said his only role was guiding them through the steps required to compete, including procuring the visas in Amman.

"I tried to help show them the world, but they did all the work themselves," Nam said. "They wanted to go there because they wanted to learn more."

Amjad Salman, whose brother Ahmed was traveling with the team as a coach, said there's a stretch of desert where cellphones don't work. So he wasn't surprised when the hours ticked by with no word from the small convoy.

"They were supposed to call us when they reached Amman," he said. "We kept on waiting, but they never called."

Times staff writers Shamil Aziz and Suhail Affan contributed to this report.

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