Correction to This Article
A Sept. 12 article about Sunni-Shiite romances in Iraq incorrectly said that Shiites are the minority population in the country. Shiites are the majority.

Even Dating Is Perilous In Polarized Baghdad

Qais Jassim, 26, a Shiite from the Adhamiyah section of Baghdad, says he spent his wedding night petrified that his Sunni wife's relatives would behead him.
Qais Jassim, 26, a Shiite from the Adhamiyah section of Baghdad, says he spent his wedding night petrified that his Sunni wife's relatives would behead him. (By Amit Paley -- The Washington Post)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

BAGHDAD -- He was a dashing young computer engineer. She was a shy student at his alma mater. They fell in love over lunch last year in the university cafeteria and promptly became engaged.

As they prepared for a future together, the couple barely discussed a subject that, under Saddam Hussein's rule, amounted to a footnote in matters of the heart: He was a Shiite Muslim; she was a Sunni Kurd.

But now those labels are tearing the couple apart. Barred by their families from marrying anyone of the opposite sect, the couple has erased one another's cellphone numbers and stopped speaking.

"There is no hope in this country anymore for Sunnis and Shiites to fall in love," said Husham al-Gizzy, a 25-year-old engineer, as he buried his face in his hands and recounted the story.

For decades, marriages between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq were as ordinary as the daily call to prayer. But the sectarian warfare gripping the country has created a powerful barrier to Sunni-Shiite romances.

Married couples have filed for divorce rather than face the scorn of their neighbors. Fiances have split up as a result of death threats. And, increasingly, young single Iraqis have concluded that it is simply easier to stick to their own kind when it comes to love and family.

In a country where intermarriage was long considered the glue that held a fragile multi-ethnic society together, the romantic segregation of Sunnis and Shiites is more than just a reflection of the ever more hate-filled chasm between the two groups. It is also a grim foreboding of the future.

"Everyone is just taking sides to prepare for a big civil war," said Adnan Abdul Kareem Enad, manager of Sot al-Jamayaa, a radio station that has aired tales of star-crossed Sunni and Shiite lovers. "You can see the polarization of Iraq in the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in marriage and dating."

The new taboo on Sunni-Shiite romances is only one of many impediments to love in this war-ravaged country. Religious authorities have forbidden casual dating. Women fearful of the bloodshed have become prisoners in their own homes. Couples have shunned posh restaurants once filled with lovebirds because they fear suicide bombers or kidnappers.

"This is the age of cellphone love," said Omar al-Azzawi, 33, an Internet cafe owner who has a Sunni father and a Shiite mother. "If I marry someone, we'll have to get married on the phone. We'll probably have to make love on the phone, too."

Still, the burgeoning obstacles to Sunni-Shiite romances remain among the most ominous signs of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two sects. Although underlying tensions always simmered between Hussein's Sunni government and the country's oppressed Shiite minority, few expected them to flare so violently and so quickly after his government collapsed.

For Hameed Ayad, a 24-year-old Sunni, the disintegration of his engagement to a Shiite classmate came swiftly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. His betrothed shocked him by expressing newfound pride in once-suppressed Shiite customs such as public self-flagellation and pilgrimages to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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