BAGHDAD, Iraq—On paper at least, Omar al-Dulaimi no longer exists.
With names that belong almost exclusively to Sunni Muslims in Iraq, al-Dulaimi feared that Shiite Muslims would single him out at one of the 12 checkpoints he crosses between home and work. So recently he bribed a government worker with $25 to change his name on his official paperwork.
"My biggest fear is militias. They move freely. They kill freely. They check your ID, and based on your name or surname they might kill you," said al-Dulaimi, 27, a merchant from Salman Pak who didn't want to reveal his new, more Shiite-sounding name, for obvious reasons.
In a country defined by religious and ethnic tensions, especially after the Feb. 22 bombing of the revered Shiite Askariya mosque in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra, al-Dulaimi has joined a growing number of Iraqis who think that changing their names is about survival.
For many, it's a big step. In Iraq, people define themselves by their tribes and their families, and one's name often includes reference to them all: a first name, followed by one's father's name, followed by one's grandfather's name, followed by a tribal name. Some who've taken the step describe a sense of shame at shunning their names or tribes, even on fraudulent papers.
But with stacks of bodies turning up daily in what U.S. and Iraqi officials agree are religious and ethnic killings, many think they have little choice except to disguise their religious roots, especially when those roots are hinted at through a name on a citizenship card, the main form of ID that Iraqis carry.
One popular Sunni Web site, Rabita, or Association, recently posted a list of things that Sunnis should do to disguise their identities. Item No. 1: Get a fake ID.
The other 11 items on the list, which begins "How to protect yourself from being arrested by the Iraqi security militia—an important security message," mention pictures and religious iconography that Sunnis should display in their cars and houses to trick Shiite death squads.
It's not just Sunnis who are concerned. Ridha Nouri, a 43-year-old Shiite truck driver who frequently commutes from Najaf to Mosul, said he changed his ID card after a group of Sunni insurgents stopped him and two Shiite friends who were traveling with him.
Nouri said he showed the insurgents his old ID from his time as a member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, and that seemed to satisfy them. But his friends had no such identification and were taken away. He hasn't heard from them since.
"The next day, I switched my ID card" for a fake one, Nouri said.
Iraqis' worries about their names have their roots in the dispute that split Islam into Shiite and Sunni branches 1,400 years ago. During that time, there was fierce debate over who was the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad.
One side, eventually known as Sunnis, believed that Muhammad's successor should be Abu Bakr, Muhammad's dearest friend. Abu Bakr was followed by Omar, Othman and then Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali.
The other side, which eventually came to be known as Shiites, believed that the successor should be related to Muhammad and that Ali was the legitimate imam after Muhammad's death, followed by Ali's descendants.
Because of that, Shiites are unlikely to name their children after the successors who preceded Ali.
Over the centuries, other names also have become associated with one sect or the other. Male names exclusive to Sunnis include Omar, Othman, Sufyian, Khatib and Abu Bakr. Shiite male names include Karir, Sajad, Abdul Zahara and Abdul Hussein.
Women also can be tied to sects by their names. Aisha, one of the prophet's wives and Abu Bakr's daughter, almost always connotes a Sunni, while women named Zahra are generally Shiite.
The separation is stark enough that there are reports that Shiite police who are looking for Sunnis to harass—or worse—simply take a look at the names on ID cards.
One driver who works for an American company in Baghdad and who asked not to be further identified said he recently was stopped at a police checkpoint where police said they were looking for "Omar" to search his car.
"Which Omar?" the driver asked.
"Any one," the officer responded.
There are other ways for Sunnis to pass as Shiites. The Rabita Web site, for example, advises them to wear rings with Shiite insignia, hang pictures of revered Shiite imams in their homes and keep a small piece of mud known as a turba from the Shiite holy city of Karbala in their pockets. Shiites rest their heads on the turba when they pray.
The Web site also lists the first 12 Shiite imams for its readers to memorize, something Sunnis aren't likely to know.
Al-Dulaimi's brother, Ali, already has paid a government worker to have his tribal name changed on his ID to that of a tribe that has members of both sects. He's also programmed his cell phone so that its ring is a popular Shiite chant, and has even mastered speaking like Shiites from the south.
"The way I protect myself is through my accent," he said.
The concern over names has given rise to a booming business in fake IDs. Forgers have set up shop openly in nearly every major Iraqi city.
Iraq's ID card, the equivalent of a driver's license, isn't hard to copy. It's a laminated card with information filled out by hand, a stamp and a photo.
In Najaf, a 33-year-old man who's considered THE source of fake ID cards sits at a table under an umbrella in front of the government office where official IDs are issued. He said he'd made 1,000 fake ID cards since the Shiite mosque was bombed. He asked not to be named.
The concern over names seems to have touched nearly every group in Iraq, even the police. One officer in Tikrit, a Sunni city that's Saddam's hometown, said he used a fake ID with a Shiite name whenever he went to Baghdad to deliver mail to the Ministry of Interior.
One Baghdad police officer whom Knight Ridder interviewed, who wanted to be identified only as someone who changed his surname from Saddam to Mohammed, said he got his first fake ID two years ago and that he wanted two more.
"I have come to the decision that you need three ID cards: one that says you are Sunni, a second that says you are Shiite and a third that says you are Christian," said Saddam/Mohammed. "After I make these ID cards, I will ask those who ask for identification: `Who do you want me to be?' And then I will give them the one they want."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha al Awsy in Baghdad, Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit and Qassim Mohammed in Najaf contributed to this report. A special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons also contributed from Baghdad.)
A NOTE ON IRAQI NAMES
In Iraq, full names most often consist of a first name, father's first name, grandfather's first name and tribal name. For everyday use, however, most Iraqis refer to themselves either by their first names and fathers' names or their first names and tribal names.
Saddam Hussein, for example, used his given name and his father's name as his preferred moniker. His full name is Saddam Hussein al-Majid al-Tikriti, with al-Majid the name of his grandfather and al-Tikriti a reference to his hometown of Tikrit.
Other politicians commonly use their given names and tribal names. For example, Iraq's minister of transportation calls himself Salam al-Maliki. His full name is Salam Awda Faleh al-Maliki.
And there are variations. Iraq's new prime minister's full name is Nuri Kamel Mohammed Hasan al-Maliki, but he goes by Jawad al-Maliki—Jawad being a name he adopted when he was hiding from Saddam's secret police. The two al-Malikis are members of the same tribe, but aren't otherwise related.
FIRST NAMES ASSOCIATED WITH ISLAMIC SECTS
SUNNI MEN—Omar, Othman, Sufyian, Khatib, Abu Bakr
SHIITE MEN—Karir, Sajad, Abdul Zahara, Abdul Hussein
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.