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Iraqis take swing at softball

Mona Mahmoud USA Today

BAGHDAD – Add another item to the list of U.S. imports coming to Iraq: women’s softball.

Nonexistent before the U.S.-led invasion, women’s softball is catching on.

The Iraqi Baseball Union counts four female softball teams competing against one another in Baghdad and six in outside provinces, said Ismael Khalil Ismael, the union’s founder. The union has had men’s baseball teams for nearly 10 years, Ismael said.

“It is a new game for Iraqi society,” said Farah Safa, 25, a teacher and softball player. “You feel that you are practicing many sports at the same time, and that is why I like it.” She said softball shares some of the same skills needed for volleyball and track.

Ismael, a longtime baseball enthusiast, has worked for years to establish the sport in Iraq. In 1994, he submitted a request to the Iraqi Olympic Committee to establish a baseball team to compete against other countries. Committee members rejected the idea, saying it was “too American,” he said. He spent three days in a Baghdad jail for even proposing the idea, he said.

“They told me it was an American game, which meant I had made contact with American people,” he said. He hadn’t made contact with Americans, though his Iraqi cousin, who lived in the United States, sent him bats and balls.

Two years later, the mood at the committee had eased. This time, the committee accepted the offer, and baseball was born in Iraq.

Women’s softball still seemed a little far off then, he said. After the U.S.-led invasion, however, Ismael applied to the committee and created a national women’s softball team. He also added female teams to the existing Iraqi Baseball Union, which he founded in 1996.

To find female athletes who knew how to swing a bat or field a pop fly, Ismael put out ads and held trivia competitions on radio stations across Iraq. He was surprised at the positive response, he said. “You cannot imagine the number of applications I got, not only from Baghdad but from all over Iraq,” Ismael said.

After building a good base of female athletes, he set up training camps for players and coaches to go over the rules of the game and strengthen skills, he said.

But as insurgent bombings mounted this summer in the area where they practiced in Baghdad, the training camps ceased, Ismael said. Practice is set to start again next week.

Although softball and baseball are associated with America, the players haven’t received any threats, Ismael said.

Ismael, however, recently received his first threat, which came via e-mail from someone in Saudi Arabia.

Ismael e-mailed him back. “We can’t beat the U.S. with weapons,” he told him. “Let’s try with their sports.”

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