- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

BAGHDAD — In Muhsan al-Musawi’s cramped wedding registration office, the only difference between Shi’ite and Sunni used to be a mark on the paperwork.

Thumbing back through his records, he can find scores of marriage certificates on which the bridegroom ticked “Shia,” and the bride “Sunni.”

In the past year, however, the mixed weddings that helped to bind Iraq’s religious communities together have all but stopped. Sunnis and Shi’ites may not yet be sworn enemies, but it is increasingly rare that they become sworn lovers.

“Before, for every 50 marriages there were 20 between Shia men and Sunni girls,” said Mr. al-Musawi, a Shi’ite imam who has officiated over weddings for more than 20 years. “Now the Shia men who come here nearly always marry Shia women. Perhaps only one marriage in 50 is mixed.”

Mr. al-Musawi is one of the many wedding officials who ply their trade in Baghdad’s Khadomiya district, a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood. Business remains brisk, and noisy wedding motorcades still wind through the streets, complete with drums, horns and bursts of gunfire.

But the fact that most Shi’ites now marry fellows Shi’ites and most Sunnis marry fellow Sunnis is a sign that the sectarian terror campaign spearheaded by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi is gradually having the effect of isolating the two communities.

Last week Zarqawi’s followers carried out some of their deadliest acts yet, with a string of car bombs killing more than 200 people in Shi’ite neighborhoods across Baghdad. The violence continued on Friday, when 12 Shi’ite laborers were killed by gunmen.

A car bomb killed at least 30 and wounded 38 yesterday on the outskirts of Baghdad in what appeared to be the latest attack on Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population, a security official said.

In a chilling Internet broadcast, Zarqawi also renewed his exhortations for Sunni insurgent groups to “declare war against Shias” in retaliation for last weekend’s Iraqi-American offensive in the rebel-held town of Tal Afar.

Intelligence officials are divided over whether many will heed the call, because a lot of Sunni insurgent groups remain secular and nationalist in nature and have no interest in killing fellow Iraqis.

But the main bulwark against civil war has always been the tradition of intermarriage between the two religions. Now that process has gone into reverse. Not only are mixed romances in decline, but both Sunnis and Shi’ites are gradually moving out of each other’s neighborhoods for fear of being targeted.

Abu Majid, 45, an estate agent in a Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, said: “In the old days, Sunnis and Shias didn’t care if they lived next door to each other. Now, when I show people around houses, they knock on the neighbors’ doors to find out which religion they are. If the family are not the same religion, they ask me, ‘Can you find us somewhere else?’”

Despite the activities of Zarqawi’s death squads, which have targeted Shi’ites in spates of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings for more than a year, most ordinary Iraqis still dismiss talk of civil war or religious differences. When asked by Western journalists if they are Sunni or Shi’ite, most still reply simply: “Muslim.”


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