Marriages Between Sects Come Under Siege in Iraq
Once a Sign of Tolerance, Unions Now Seen as Perilous Betrayals

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.

While there are no official statistics, sociologists estimate that nearly a third of Iraqi marriages are unions between members of different sectarian or ethnic communities. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many Iraqis argued that the prevalence of such unions showed that Iraqis cared more about their Arab or national identity than their sect, which would spare the country a civil war.

But Iraq's sectarian strife has risen sharply since the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra by Sunni militants a year ago. Since then, more than 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, a number that is growing by 50,000 every month, according to the United Nations. The vast majority have left mixed areas, the main battlefields of the sectarian war.

For the past 23 years, Ahmad Shammari, 55, a Sunni, lived with his family in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood. A few months ago, Shiite militias began to drive Sunnis from their homes. Still, he felt protected. The family of his Shiite wife had been in Hurriyah for 40 years. Then workers at a local Sunni mosque were killed, and more Sunnis fled.

One evening, Shammari and his wife had a conversation, he recalled.

"It's better if you go," she said.

Shammari refused. But a few days later, after more Sunni families left, he reconsidered. He worried that his wife might be seen as a collaborator for marrying a Sunni. He worried about Omar, his eldest son, who bears the most common of Sunni names. There was pressure from his wife's family, too.

"They felt a little scared that one of their women was married to a Sunni," Shammari said. "They were also scared that I would be killed. So they encouraged her to make me leave."

In late November, he told his three boys and two girls that he would be "gone for a short time." Later, Omar, 15, walked up to him and said: "I can't stay here. I feel scared." Shammari understood.

Early the next morning, they packed lightly. They didn't want to attract attention from the neighbors. At the door, Shammari cried. So did his wife.

Omar watched quietly. Father and son took a taxi to Shammari's parents' house in a majority-Sunni neighborhood. It is only seven miles away, but the violence, curfews and checkpoints have shackled his wife and children. They visit only occasionally. Always, his youngest children ask when he is returning home.

"I will be back soon, inshallah," he tells them, using the common Arabic expression for "God willing."

Sorrow and Bitterness

Nowadays, even in a climate of deep suspicions, Iraqis of different sects mix when they can. But anecdotal evidence from interviews with social workers, U.N. officials and everyday Iraqis suggests that the strife is breeding mistrust within mixed families. Iraqis tell stories about family members being betrayed by relatives of a different sect.

Khaleel Ibrahim Fahad al-Janabi, 54, a former Iraqi army colonel, said his Sunni nephew, Ahmed, was shot dead by two brothers-in-law who were Shiite militiamen. Janabi now wishes one of his daughters, who is married to a Shiite, would divorce. He still has one unwed daughter.

"I would never ever give her in marriage to a Shia," Janabi said bitterly.

Samar Ahmed, a 25-year-old Iraqi government employee, remembered how her Sunni father turned against their family.

Ahmed's mother is Shiite. By 2005, her father had grown closer to his previous wife, a Sunni, and their children. When a son from that marriage was killed by Shiite militiamen, her father grew bitter, said Ahmed, who identifies herself as Shiite.

That's when he began pressuring Ahmed's mother to sign over to him the deed to a house in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, that her mother had inherited.

Ahmed, her sad voice quivering at times, said she still recalls her father's words when her maternal uncle went missing one day.

"He's just like the other Shia dogs, disappeared and killed like them," he said.

One day in October, her father came by the house. He carried a can of kerosene. As Ahmed and her younger brother watched helplessly, he poured it on his wife and threatened to set her on fire.

"He was beating her," Ahmed said. "He even pulled out a knife and said, 'I'll kill you.' " Her mother signed over the deed. Ahmed filed a complaint with the police, but they dismissed it as an internal family problem. A few weeks later, they learned that the house had been sold. She has not seen her father since that day.

"In neighborhoods, the Sunni are displacing the Shia or the Shia are displacing the Sunnis," said Ahmed with disgust. "In my family, it is my father who displaced us."

Loyalties Divided

After the second death threat, Mahmoud would lock her husband inside the house. They contemplated moving to the southern Shiite city of Najaf, but that made her uneasy.

"They may question why he married a Sunni," Mahmoud said.

So Mahmoud urged her husband to move to Cairo. "I gave him an ultimatum: 'You go to Egypt, or I will leave you. I cannot see you get killed,' " Mahmoud said. She would stay and work.

The day he left, she didn't tell anyone, not even her family. She was worried that someone might kidnap him on the way to the airport.

In May, a month after her husband moved to Egypt, his brother was kidnapped and has not been seen again. When Mahmoud visited her husband in October, she felt a change in his family.

"They began to refuse me because I am Sunni," Mahmoud said. "The person who kidnapped his brother was Sunni. It was not the same family as before. They talked about Sunnis as being criminals. They said Sunnis kill people."

Her husband, who is unemployed, wanted her to move to Cairo and live with his family. Mahmoud refused.

"I didn't feel comfortable," Mahmoud said.

She also had a good job in Baghdad. "If I go to Egypt, I will have to start from zero again," she said.

In Iraq, her family, too, had changed.

"They tell me not to go and live with his family. They say the situation is different now," Mahmoud said. "Now, I have become a problem to my family because they agreed to my marriage to a Shiite man. Some in my family are asking me to think about leaving my husband. They say: 'May, think of your life. Are you going to spend the rest of your life working and working and then traveling to see him?' "

Last month, Mahmoud tried to visit her husband. In a region growing weary of Iraq's refugees, the Egyptian government, she said, turned down her request for a visa.

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