Sectarian Violence in Iraq Slows Mixed Marriages

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Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, half of all marriages in Baghdad registered at the city's main family court were between Sunnis and Shiites. The sectarian violence since then has changed all that. Now, the figure is only 5 percent.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, fully half of all marriages registered in Baghdad's main family court were between Sunnis and Shiites. The sectarian violence there since has changed all of that. And now, the figure is only about 5 percent.

As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, love does not conquer all.

ANNE GARRELS: A few days before their wedding, Sara Omar(ph), a Sunni, and Luey Ali(ph), her Shiite fiance, sit in a hotel coffee shop, far from their violent neighborhood. They grew up blocks from each other. They fell in love before the war.

Sara is a teacher. She's 29.

Ms. SARA OMAR: (Through translator) Even after the fall of Saddam and the sectarian violence, our love just increased. We were convinced these sectarian problems were temporary. We knew they were wrong.

GARRELS: Wrong, perhaps, that the problems didn't go away. They got worse. Sara's brother was killed by a Shiite militiaman. The couple's marriage had already faced tribal opposition. Now, the burden was sectarian hatred.

Ms. OMAR: (Through translator) Before all these, my family would have preferred me to marry a relative. You know how it works here. They like cousins to marry. But after my brother was murdered, the uncles stepped in and forbade the marriage altogether.

GARRELS: Not only by words. They roughed up Sara and her mother, threatening them if they went through with the wedding. She didn't dare visit Luey.

Mr. LUEY ALI: (Through translator) After her brother was killed, her family said all Shiites are the enemy. But they should hate the person who killed her brother, not all Shiites.

GARRELS: For months at a time, they couldn't see each other - contacting each other only by cell phones.

Ms. OMAR: (Through translator) To avoid more trouble, we told the uncles we had broken off our relationship.

GARRELS: Even with the wedding the next day, they still hadn't told Sara's uncles about the marriage.

Mr. ALI: (Through translator) We know the uncles will find out after the wedding. So we expect trouble. But I hope that they will give up. Even if I get killed for this love, I will be a happy martyr.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: They got married at a courthouse. Their reception at a hotel lasted, perhaps, 10 minutes. Almost none of Sara's relatives came.

She wore a white loose-fitting gown, a style here known as the Islamic wedding dress. Given the lack of festivity, it looked more like a burial shroud. Luey said that all young men should marry across sectarian lines to end the often deadly sectarian tensions in Iraq. The Iraqi government agrees. In one of its few efforts at reconciliation, it gives $1,500 to every mixed couple.

Ms. OMAR: (Through translator) We feel happy when we hear the government encourages us to marry and lets people know we are not making a mistake.

GARRELS: Mistake or not, it won't be easy. Sara will now move those few blocks across the invisible line to live with her new Shiite husband and in-laws - cut off from her own family by the sectarian divide she's bridging. And in Iraq -as women whispered at the wedding - a woman's own family is the only protection she has if a marriage goes bad.

Now, if there are problems, Sara's family is more likely to be threat than a help.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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