For Baghdad couples, love often lost amid sectarian struggle

In Iraq, mixed Sunni-Shiite marriages are becoming rarer.
In Iraq, mixed Sunni-Shiite marriages are becoming rarer. Allison Long, Kansas City Star

BAGHDAD — Najlaa Abdul Razaq, 32, a Sunni Muslim, remembers the happy mornings when she awoke early to hear her daughters giggling and to make sweet tea and breakfast for her Shiite taxi-driver husband.

Wissam Abdul Kadhim, 31, a Shiite, remembers when she and her Sunni husband could visit her parents without anyone asking what her religious sect was.

All that is gone now.

Najlaa is divorced — her Shiite husband threw her out after his family pressured him to get rid of her.

Wissam wouldn't leave her Sunni husband when the Mahdi Army came and forced his family to leave their Shiite neighborhood. So now she lives in the Sunni enclave of Ameriyah and visits her parents in her old neighborhood only with the care of a spy, with two stops to change cars. Her husband never makes the trip.

Intermarriage between Sunnis and Shiites was once common in Iraq, but no more. Warfare between the country's two major sects has segregated neighborhoods and divided families. Now it's ending marriages and filling with dread the few unions strong enough to survive.


Najlaa knew the end was coming the day her 13-year-old son, Ayad, came home last year and asked her why the Sunnis were killing innocent Shiites.

The neighborhood children, Shiites, had been bullying him about his mother, calling her and other Sunnis dogs. When he threw a punch to defend her, they pummeled him. He came home and burst into tears.

There'd been other warning signs. Shiites were divorcing their Sunni wives, Sunni families were leaving without their Shiite daughters-in-law, and children were caught in the middle.

Her husband suggested they leave, but they both knew there was no neighborhood left that welcomed both sects. The pressure grew. The Shiites wanted the Sunnis out. Her husband's cousin divorced his Sunni wife. Soon her husband followed suit.

He burst into the house and yelled, "Go! You are divorced. You are my wife no longer," she recalled. His eyes never lifted from the floor.


Wissam met her husband, Ahmed Thari, at the Ministry of Electricity, where they both worked. She was modest and graceful, and he was enchanted. She was impressed by his good nature.

When Ahmed and his family came to ask for her hand, she hid in the kitchen, anxiously doing dishes. But their plans were ruined; a cousin also asked for her hand in marriage. Her father rejected Ahmed — his Shiite daughter would not marry a Sunni man.

Ahmed, however, didn't give up. At least six times over the next two years he returned to argue his case. Each time he came back, Wissam's father said no.

Ahmed enlisted the aid of a Shiite imam from a nearby mosque, who told Wissam's father that nothing barred the union of a Shiite woman and a Sunni man. "The important thing is he prays, supports your daughter and is good to her," the imam said.

Still, her father said no. Wissam grew discouraged. She told Ahmed to find someone else; she couldn't go against her family's wishes. But Ahmed persisted, this time enlisting the aid of one of Wissam's cousins. Finally, Wissam's father relented.

In January 2006, they were engaged. The next month, the sectarian storm broke when suspected Sunni extremists bombed the Shiite Al Askariya shrine in Samarra, destroying its golden dome. By their April 27, 2006, wedding date, the storm was raging, Shiite vs. Sunni.

Still, their celebration encompassed an array of Baghdad neighborhoods that's unthinkable today. Wissam had her hair done in Jihad, now torn with violence. She had her hands painted with henna at her home in Shiite Amil. After the wedding ceremony, the couple toured all over Baghdad as drivers honked their congratulations. They spent their wedding night in Shiite Kadhamiya. The next week they moved to the then-mixed neighborhood of Hurriyah.


Najlaa sobbed when her Shiite husband left. He didn't come home that night, and in the morning, a messenger came and told her to leave the house. She gathered her clothes and her children's in knotted sheets and prepared to leave with her children. Outside, her husband and three men stopped her.

"No!" she recalled him yelling. "You go alone." Again, his eyes never met hers.

"Leave quietly. If you don't, we will slaughter all of your family," one of the men said.

"Hussein, Zahraa, Rusuk, Mustafa, come inside the house," she said to her children. Ayad, her eldest, was at his uncle's home. They sobbed goodbyes. "This is my fate," she said and left the house.

She fled to Abu Ghraib, a Sunni enclave just west of Baghdad where her family had fled in March. There, she found others like her, widowed or divorced by the war.

"I saw so much misery," she said.

Najlaa, her two unwed sisters, her brother's family and her mother crowded inside a small home with another displaced family. She registered at the local mosque for aid. When supplies came, people gathered. Women with young children went first; the others followed.


Wissam was happy in her marriage, at least at first. The couple went regularly to her mother's home, where the meals were feasts.

But soon Hurriyah was no longer safe. From October to December the Mahdi Army burned homes, attacked Sunni mosques and marked X's on Sunni homes. Soon a militiaman demanded that Ahmed's brother leave, firing gunshots to frighten him. Ahmed and Wissam decided they'd have to leave, too.

Wissam couldn't believe fellow Shiites would treat her husband so, but Ahmed and his father packed up the home and they all moved to Ameriyah, a once-upscale Sunni neighborhood that's now mostly deserted and a flashpoint for violence between al Qaida in Iraq extremists and Sunnis who are fighting them.

Now Wissam never leaves the house without her husband by her side, and she keeps her mouth shut in the streets. Her southern Shiite dialect might get her killed.

Her husband hasn't visited her family in months. Every three weeks he takes her to Mansour in central Baghdad. There they meet one of her brothers and he takes her to her family. Ahmed stays behind.

Still, he vows, they'll stay together.

"If worse comes to worse, I will take her to her parents' house and leave the country and then send for her," he said.

Ahmed looks at his wife.

"Sometimes I think we are the last Sunni and Shiite to get married here."


Najlaa has an aura of sadness and desperation about her as she tells her tale of divorce and deprivation.

"I still love my husband," she said. "He is the father of my children, and he is my life."

A month ago her husband sent a Sunni woman with a cell phone to Abu Ghraib. On the phone was a text message.

"I want you back," it said. "I'm so sorry for my weakness." He blamed pressure from his family.

He asked her to flee with him to Syria. She asked for her children, to prove his sincerity. He said no, but promised to tell his family that he wants her back. She hopes he means it.

"I am waiting," she said, waiting for her husband to arrange a secret way for them to leave.

(Issa is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)