BAGHDAD, May 10 (UPI) -- The cleric head of a prominent Shiite Muslim group opposed to the former Iraqi regime returned to Iraq after 23 years of exile in Iran Saturday, greeting thousands of cheering followers in southern Iraq with a call for Islamic unity and Iraqi independence.
U.S. officials with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the Pentagon-backed civil authority, launched a return of sorts of its own on Saturday. They announced two Iraqi soccer stars -- near-heroes in Iraqi society -- will come back to take over leadership of the International Olympic Committee. The previous head was Saddam Hussein's son Uday, whose vicious streak as well as playboy reputation are slowly emerging in captured documents.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, 68, told supporters of his Iran-backed group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, expects to travel north to the holy Iraqi city of Najaf in coming days. Wherever he goes the United States and Britain are likely to be watching closely -- al-Hakim's motives and goals are as yet unclear with regard to an interim Iraqi government and its Western supporters.
In Basra Saturday his welcome was enthusiastic. Al Jazeera television estimated the crowd that jammed a stadium there at 100,000.
"We Muslims have to live together," the British Broadcasting Corp. quoted al-Hakim as saying. "We have to help each other stand together against imperialism. We want an independent government. We refuse imposed government."
About 60 percent of Iraq's population of some 24 million are Shiite Muslim, but Saddam's regime and his ruling Baathist Party were dominated by Sunni Muslims who suppressed the expression of the Shiite faction of Islam. Al-Hakim left Iraq at the start of its war with Iran, an Islamic state of Shiite Muslims. SCIRI since has developed its own militia and Washington has asked Tehran not to let them or other Iranian influences interfere in Iraq.
SCIRI boycotted the first meeting in April of Iranian opposition groups hosted by the United States. It did send delegates to a second meeting held mid-month in Baghdad, however.
Meanwhile, in the Iraqi capital, U.S. representatives of ORHA said Ahmed Ravhi and Raad Hmoudi, two of Iraq's most popular soccer players, accepted the position of running the Olympic Committee. One official told United Press International the interim authority wants to rebuild Iraq's sports facilities for all Iraq's people instead of the select few who enjoyed them under Saddam. ORHA appears to view soccer -- or football, as it is called in Iraq and most other countries -- as an important element in Iraq's reconstruction with its ability to entertain, unify and provide a healthy outlet for families.
When asked how Iraqis viewed Ravhi, the leading Arab player in 1988, 25-year-old Ali Amin said he was more than a hero, more than a king: "He's too famous (for those descriptions). He has a great history with the Iraqi people."
Hmoudi, the other soccer star, has been in Qatar for the last several years. He has reportedly agreed to return to his homeland.
"It will be a better committee when Ravhi and Hmoudi return to run it," declared another recently returned Iraqi exile, 48-year-old Viad Cattan.
Indeed, it appears Uday Hussein ran the National Olympic Committee as a front for nightclubs, racetracks and other entertainment venues, an ORHA official who asked not to be named told UPI. He owned his own sporting-goods company that exported shoes and sport clothing around the world for cash; ORHA also called him the owner Al-Rashid, of one of Iraq's most prominent banks.
"As we're learning more day by day, Uday's abusive tactics extended to the athletes," said the senior OHRA official. "His ugly reign was a dark shadow over Olympic sports."
U.S. military officials in Baghdad said they filled a 5-ton truck with documents detailing what they described as Uday's police-state tactics and the heavy Iraqi military influence in his Olympic Committee leadership. They refused to discuss details of the documents, saying they had yet to evaluate them. But rumors of Uday's beatings of athletes who lost matches and other abuse have circulated in sports circles for years.