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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
08 November 2006

IRAQ: Sectarian violence forces mixed couples to divorce

BAGHDAD, 8 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - When Hiba Sami, 38, freely married her husband 18 years ago, she never thought she would one day be forced to divorce him against her own will.

“I love my husband, but my family has forced me to divorce him because we are Shi’ite and he is Sunni. My family say they [the husband’s family] are insurgents… and that living with him is an offence to God,” Sami said.

“We have four children and every day they cry because they miss their father. When they ask for an explanation, my family tells them that their father is a betrayer and should be kept away from them,” she added.

Hundreds of such mixed couples have been forced to divorce due to pressure from insurgents, militias or families who fear that they could be singled out, according to Peace for Iraqis Association (PIA), a local NGO devoted to the issue.

“Families living in happiness are now victims of sectarian violence,” said Ahmed Farid, a psychologist and spokesperson for PIA. “Children are being forced to see their parents divorced, not because of personal problems but because someone believes that mixed marriages are unacceptable in the circumstances of Iraq.”

Farid said forced divorces could cause serious psychological problems for the children involved and further brainwash them to accept sectarian violence.

“There is a case of a child who tried to kill himself because his parents divorced. He tried to stop them from separating,” Farid told IRIN.

Farid said the association had received many threats from insurgents and militias for trying to prevent divorces between mixed couples by trying to persuade relatives against the idea.

Prior to 2003, doctrinal differences were never a problem in Iraq. Mixed marriages between Sunnis and Shi’ites and between Sunni Kurds and Arabs of both sects were common in the days of former president Saddam Hussein.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, sectarian divides began to emerge as the majority Shi’ite population, which had been heavily discriminated against under Hussein’s government, began to re-assert itself as the dominant political power.

Sectarian violence escalated considerably after Sunnis bombed a revered Shi’ite shrine in the northern city of Samarra in February this year.

The Iraqi court responsible for carrying out divorces said that over the past four months there had been a significant increase in the number of divorces occurring. Most of them were between mixed couples but the court could not confirm whether they were forced or not.

Religious leaders are divided on this issue. Some are calling on mixed couples to divorce for their own safety. “[Shi’ite] women are in danger [if] they live with Sunni males who could be involved in insurgent activities. For their protection, divorce is best,” Sheikh Ali Mubarak, a religious leader from Sadr City district, said.

Sheikh Muhammad Rabia’a, a religious leader from Adhamiyah district, says mixed couples should not divorce if they are living in harmony.

The government estimates that two million of Iraq’s 6.5 million marriages are unions between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shi’ites.

In April 2006, IRIN reported on mixed couples forming an association called Union for Peace in Iraq (UPI) that aimed to protect such marriages from sectarian violence. Members were forced to dissolve the association after three mixed couples, including founding members of UPI, were killed.

“We were the only association in Iraq dealing with this. [Now] there are two choices left, stay in Iraq and divorce your partner or flee to a neighbouring country,” Abu Salah, a former member of the association, said.



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