Marriages Between Sects Come Under Siege in Iraq

A bombing a year ago at a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a wave of sectarian bloodletting. Since then, more than 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. Most have left mixed Sunni-Shiite areas.
A bombing a year ago at a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a wave of sectarian bloodletting. Since then, more than 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. Most have left mixed Sunni-Shiite areas. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 4, 2007

BAGHDAD -- The note was slipped under the door of May Mahmoud's shop. Neatly typed on a computer, it read: "You must leave your home. We give you three days. Or we will kill you." It was addressed to her husband.

He was a Shiite Muslim. But she was a Sunni. Where would they go?

They fled from their mostly Sunni neighborhood to his mother's house in a nearby Shiite enclave. Within months, as Sunni insurgents pushed into that area, another death threat arrived at the shop. It was time to leave again. As she told the story, Mahmoud's voice shook, not out of anger, but despair.

"From that point on, our life became like hell," she said.

As U.S. and Iraqi forces attempt to pacify the capital, mixed couples who symbolize Iraq's once famous tolerance are increasingly entangled by hate. Forced by militias or insurgents to leave their homes because one partner is from the wrong sect, they find few havens because of the other partner's affiliation. These strains, fueled by displacement, separation and fear, are beginning to tear apart such families, weakening bonds that for many Iraqis hold the hope of sectarian reconciliation.

"In the absence of security, Iraqis are protecting themselves by turning to their sects and their tribes," said Zina Abdul Rasul, a U.N. human rights worker who herself is a product of a mixed marriage. "It is becoming normal to hear about mixed families breaking down."

Today, Mahmoud, a small woman with thin eyebrows curving over her almond-shaped eyes, lives with her relatives. Her husband lives in Cairo with his family. Her Sunni family is pressing her to divorce him because of his sect. His Shiite family is convinced all Sunnis are criminals. The couple have met twice since April.

"We love each other a lot," said Mahmoud, 37, a faint smile appearing on her oval face, framed by a lime green head scarf. "That's what makes it worse. We're suffering because we cannot live together."

She requested that her husband's name not be used because he is well known in her neighborhood. Seated inside a hotel, her voice dropped to a whisper whenever someone passed nearby.

'It's Better If You Go'

The question came long before the death threats, long before the separation. Mahmoud remembers the day clearly. It was 2002, a few days before her marriage.

"Don't you understand that he is a Shia?" her brother asked.

She was surprised he crossed that line. "Yes, I know. I am a Muslim. He is a Muslim. That is all that matters," she replied.


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