What's In a Name? In Iraq, Life or Death

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As sectarian violence smolders in their country, Iraqis with names that are easily recognized as Sunni Arab are changing their names in the hope of avoiding violence. Some Shiites are also adopting neutral-sounding Arabic names as a means of escaping scrutiny.

The fall of Saddam Hussein brought a rush of men — many of them named after Saddam or his sons — to government offices, applying to have their names changed. But now it's those with names that are clearly Shiite or clearly Sunni who are looking to have their names changed to something more neutral.

Handed down by tribal tradition, the names are an easy way to mark sectarian differences. Abu Showkat, a registry clerk at the Iraqi nationality and passports office, says some of the more common names are Omar, Abu Beker, Othman, Abdul Hussein, and Ali.

The names come from men involved in the 7th century battle over who would succeed the Prophet Mohammed, a dispute that led to the schism between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites believe that Ali, Mohammed's cousin or son-in-law, was his rightful heir, whereas the Sunnis believe the successor should be appointed by a council. Abu Bakr was the first appointed caliph, or successor, and Omar was the second. So today, names like Omar are typically Sunni, while Ali is typically Shiite.

Men like Omar al Tikriti, who says the de-Baathification drive has made it difficult for him to find work, say they hear stories about groups of massacred men all having the same name.

"Lately we've witnessed a phenomenon where everyone who bears the name of Omar is being killed," al Tikriti said.

He cited a television report on 16 men, all named Omar, who had been killed.

"My cousin works at the hospital in Medical City," al Tikriti said. "And he confirmed that the 16 were brought to the morgue in one day, and all of them were called Omar."

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