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

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

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

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To avoid being targeted in sectarian violence, some Iraqis are changing their names. Those with overtly Sunni Arab names are taking more neutral sounding Arabic names and some Shiites are doing the same.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has that story.

JAMIE TARABAY: They come here to the Nationality and Passports Office in (unintelligible) each day. Most come to update their identification cards or apply for new passports. But they also come to apply for new names. Registry clerk Abu Showkat says people do it because they're afraid.

ABU SHOWKAT: (Through translator) It has become a security issue. They are afraid that they'll get stopped on the road and when asked to show their I.D.'s, they will get killed. Sunnis and Shia are known from their tribal names or their first names. That's why people are changing them.

TARABAY: There was a rush on the registry in the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Men who'd been named after Saddam or his sons quickly applied to have their names changed. But now it's those with names that are clearly Shiite or clearly Sunni who look to have them changed to something more neutral. Abu Showkat lists some of those more obvious names.

SHOWKAT: (Through translator) Names like Omar, Abu Beker, Othman, or Abdul Hussein or Ali.

TARABAY: Those are the names of the men involved in the 7th century battle over who would succeed the prophet Mohammed. The schism between Sunnis and Shiites occurred at this time. The Shiites believe that Ali, Mohammed's cousin and 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.

Twenty-seven-year-old Omar Delamy (ph) says he's become a target because of his name.

OMAR DELAMY: Yeah, they're looking for a guy who's named Omar, you know. Like I'm carrying some kind of disease, like.

TARABAY: According to the registry, some Iraqis are changing their tribal names too. A tribal name tells people where you're from, whether you're Sunni or Shiite, who your relatives are. Omar's tribal name, Delamy, these days is synonymous with the insurgents of Umbar Province, where he's from.

DELAMY: Everybody say if you're a Delamy, you're a terrorist and something like that. I've heard it one time as a joke, but it wasn't funny.

TARABAY: Omar says he can't find a job in the Shiite-led government. He's procured a fake I.D. card, but he doesn't want to use it. Leaning against the wall outside the registry office is Sanab Hussein, a Shiite university student. Hers is a typical Shiite name and she wants to change it to Anwar, which means life in Arabic.

SANAB HUSSEIN: (Through translator) It's a nice name. It makes me feel optimistic. And if it's going to be Anwar, I hope it will illuminate the people.

TARABAY: Sanab wants to change her name because she lives in Amiriyah, one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, where Sunni gunmen have killed many Shiite residents.

HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The conditions in Amiriyah are very bad with all the suffering that we go through. The bombings, the security situation. And I can tell you that Shiite names are being targeted and it's getting out of control.

TARABAY: Sanab Hussein says she'll keep coming to the registry until she gets a new name. Others go to the black market for fake I.D.'s. Some, like Omar al- Tikriti, refuse to change their names. He says it would be like changing his identity. The 25-year-old engineer used to live in Baghdad, but kept getting turned down for jobs because of his name. He's from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and belongs to the same tribe. He spoke by telephone from Tikrit, a place where he says he doesn't' even feel like he belongs.

OMAR AL: (Through translator) I can't even speak their accent. I don't even know the people, just those who are very close to me. But I'm forced to stay here. It's not my decision because I'm doing this to stay alive.

TARABAY: Omar al-Tikriti paid bribes while in Baghdad to push job applications through, but without any luck. The de-Baath-ification drive to root out former Saddam loyalists from government didn't help him either, but it was the attention to his name and the underlying threats which impelled him to flee to Tikrit.

AL: (Through translator) Lately, we've witnessed a phenomenon where everyone who bears the name of Omar is being killed.

TARABAY: He said he recently saw a television report on 16 men, all named Omar, who'd been killed.

AL: (Through translator) You'd think all those 16 had political or religious reasons for their death. My cousin works at the hospital in Medical City and he confirmed that the 16 were brought to the morgue in one day and all of them were called Omar. Now in Baghdad, the slaughtering depends on your I.D.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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