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Children of al-Qaeda in Iraq pay for sins of their fathers

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 3:24 AM

IN BAQUBAH, IRAQ Zahraa is a rambunctious toddler. She still sucks on a pacifier, and her mother dresses her in pink. But according to the government, she does not exist.

The daughter of an al-Qaeda in Iraq militant who forced her mother into marriage and motherhood, then disappeared, Zahraa is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children whose births amid the anarchy and insurgent violence of Iraq were never legally recorded.

Without the paperwork to prove that she is the child of an Iraqi man and that her parents were joined in a legitimate marriage before her birth, Zahraa and others like her have no rights as Iraqi citizens, legal experts say. They do not have birth certificates, passports or national identification cards and will be unable to go to school or hold a government job.

These children, a little-noticed legacy of more than seven years of war, are paying for the sins of their fathers.

"It's dangerous because in the future they might hurt the society that hurt them," said Ahmed Jassim, director of the Nour Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working to improve the lives of the militants' offspring in the northeastern Iraqi province of Diyala.

The children are products of a time when al-Qaeda in Iraq controlled large swaths of the nation after the U.S.-led invasion. The legal system broke down, institutions stopped functioning and an insurgency raged. Some Sunni Muslim communities gave sanctuary to the men, Iraqi and foreign Arabs, believing they would help rid them of a foreign army. But al-Qaeda in Iraq quickly grew brutal, overpowered other Iraqi insurgent groups, declared an Islamic state and enforced a severe form of Islamic law.

Communities slowly turned on the group, and the men of al-Qaeda in Iraq were jailed or killed, or are lurking in the shadows. The undocumented children they left behind are now between 1 and 4 years old.

Jassim has identified at least 125 families in Diyala province alone with children from forced al-Qaeda in Iraq marriages. Many of the women don't know the real identities of their absent husbands and fear that if they fight for the rights of their children, they and the men of their families will be scorned or jailed for a connection to the outlawed organization.

The country's political void has not helped. More than six months after the national parliamentary elections, a government has yet to be formed. Many of the women are Sunni Arabs and worry that a Shiite-led government would lack sympathy and consider them accomplices in the crimes of their missing husbands.

Officials in the Interior Ministry tasked with assisting victims of the Iraq war said the women are not considered victims of rape and, although the situation is unfortunate, there is nothing they can do.

"Helping them could encourage al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Fadhil al-Shweilli, a ministry official who deals with victims of war.

Legal experts said the easiest solution would be to give the children to orphanages or forge their birth certificates with the name of a fake father.

Naheda Zaid Manhal, a parliament member from the largely Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition, said she will fight on behalf of the children once the government is formed.

"These children are guilty of nothing," she said.

This account of Zahraa's birth and life is based on interviews with her mother - who goes by Umm Zahraa - her grandmother and other relatives, but it could not be independently verified and they would not allow their full names to be used for fear of repercussions. In addition to their legal problems, mothers such as Umm Zahraa say they feel ostracized in a culture that sees out-of-wedlock births as taboo.

One night in summer 2008, six militants from al-Qaeda in Iraq burst into Umm Zahraa's home in Buhroz, just outside Baqubah. Shiite Arabs had already been forced out of the neighborhood or killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq during Iraq's civil war from 2005 through 2007. Residents were too scared to turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq, despite its waning influence in other areas of the country.

A man who identified himself only as Abu Zahraa - father of Zahraa - and the others told Umm Zahraa's brother he had three choices: join them, be killed or give them his mother, Umm Hassan, and his younger sister, then a striking 18-year-old with dark eyes.

The women relented and the marriages were performed by one of the armed men, though no marriage contract was signed. Abu Zahraa then forced the teenager to have sex, and for the next three months, he and the others would arrive late at night, the women said. They always left before sunrise. Umm Zahraa's husband never gave his real name, the family said. Umm Zahraa says she never saw the face of the man who stole her virginity.

"I hate him. He took the dearest thing in a woman's life," she said.

When she became pregnant, the young woman considered aborting the baby or killing herself. But she believes in God, she said, and Islam sanctions neither act. By the time she gave birth, the baby's father had been gone for months, having disappeared without a trace.

But she named her daughter Zahraa, in case he returned.

Now Umm Zahraa's family lives in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province.

They told their new neighbors that the baby was an orphan they had taken into their home. But Umm Zahraa knows the neighbors whisper about her and wonder why Zahraa calls her "Mama.''

Umm Zahraa will not go to court to pursue the rights of her child, now 11/2 years old. She worries that people will fault her for the marriage and the child that resulted, she said.

The family can't afford the $100 to $300 for a forged birth certificate with a fake father's name. With her husband killed, Umm Hassan, Zahraa's grandmother, volunteers at a local hospital and lives off tips. When she gets tips, they eat, but when she doesn't, they don't. Around her is the evidence of a life in poverty: pink cracked walls, no furniture, a son in jail, accused of kidnapping. Despite her meager earnings, Umm Hassan hopes to save enough to bribe the midwife and buy Zahraa a forged birth certificate.

For now, Umm Zahraa does not leave the house. At 20, she bears the burden of someone much older, her face drawn with sadness. She is conflicted about her past, abused by the father of her child and guilt-ridden because she could not stop him.

Every day she searches her daughter's face and wonders whether the features come from the child's father. She wonders whether her daughter will ever have a chance here.

"No one will understand," Umm Zahraa said. "No one will say I'm a victim."

Special correspondents Jinan Hussein and Hassan Shimmari contributed to this report.

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