'I love you' crosses Iraqi sectarian divide

At mass wedding, 70 couples are feted by a media magnate promoting Iraqi reconciliation.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Hames al-Shimmari says he had good reason to brave a trip recently from his home in Shiite Sadr City to the mixed area of Al-Fadhel across the Tigris River: It was time to propose to Hanan Qasim, who is Sunni.

"Her area is ... a great danger for me, coming from a place that is Shiite to the core," said Mr. Shimmari, a sports journalist, as he celebrated their marriage last Friday. "We wanted to break the barriers between the sects, which is an ugly phenomenon."

Dumou Jalaleddin, a Kurd who celebrated her nuptials at the same event, echoed Shimmari's defiance. "I love this man," she said, pinning a carnation on the lapel of Haidar Hussein, her Arab groom. She stamped his cheek with a kiss. "We fell in love two years ago at the height of the war."

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The two were among 70 couples taking part in a mass wedding in Baghdad, organized by a media magnate eager to send a message that average citizens are a more worthwhile symbol for reconciliation, through basic human rites like marriage, than are the country's feuding leaders. Washington has been pressing Iraqi leaders lately to embark on bold reconciliation measures in light of the improving security situation.

Fakhri Karim, owner of the Al-Mada newspaper and publishing group, decided to scour the city for couples from different confessions and ethnicities whose love endured bombs and transcended the sectarian and ethnic conflict that has torn apart Iraq's otherwise diverse society. He chose couples eager to tie the knot and could benefit from some financial help.

President Jalal Talabani, a secular Kurd and friend and financial backer of Mr. Karim, cheered the idea, which was dubbed the "Joyous Gathering" and cost some $200,000.

Mass weddings, as a sign of a leader's magnanimity, are an old tradition across the Arab world. Saddam Hussein's late son Uday ordered them during Ashura, a somber religious festival for Iraq's then-repressed Shiite population. More recently, Ammar al-Hakim, the son of powerful Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has sponsored mass marriages for 3,700 couples, most of them devout Shiites.

More than anything, Mr. Karim, an avid backer of the arts who has organized several festivals to bring Iraqis together, says he's trying to bolster a population yearning for hope and familiar rites amid a bleak political and social landscape. "It's a chance to put divisions aside for a city that wants to be happy again," said the editorial column in his paper on Saturday.

On Friday, festivities began when the couples, dressed in their finest, passed through metal detectors into a large indoor parking area at Al-Mada's main offices. There they were serenaded by a traditional Baghdadi band, complete with trumpets and drums. The newlyweds had their own held religious or civil ceremonies earlier.

Afterward, it was time for a favored wedding custom: the drive around town with horns honking. The couples streamed into white cars decorated with flowers and ribbons. Another custom, firing in the air in celebration, was banned. Iraqi forces armed to the teeth piled into pickup trucks and escorted the 70-car convoy as it passed through battered and segregated neighborhoods in a symbol of unity.

Everyone then joined in a party at a hotel on Abu Nawas, a central street that is now tightly secured. That added a dose of reality: It took hours for the couples to get searched, particularly the dressed-up brides. The draconian measures prevented Iraq's first lady, Hiro Talabani, who had come to the party, from bringing in her presidential guards. An altercation broke out, prompting a miffed Mrs. Talabani to leave.

But tempers cooled – and the first lady's best wishes plus the promise of a gift of a refrigerator and TV set for each couple were relayed. That was in addition to 1 million Iraqi dinars ($820) and a two- night stay at the hotel.

To cap the evening, doves were released inside the hotel hall, after which the couples cut into a 65-foot long cake. It was then time for a show of traditional dances from the mainly Sunni western province of Anbar, the Shiite south, and the Kurdish north. The newlyweds and their families took to the floor hand-in-hand to dance the popular chobi.

It was all a bittersweet moment for Hala Fakher, who lost her father, a Sunni, about a year ago when he was kidnapped from his office. His body was found in the morgue three days later. Just days earlier, he had consented to Ms. Fakher marrying Mazen Kadhim, a Shiite. "It's the ultimate act of defiance to all who say we are divided," says Mr. Kadhim.

But Hana Edwar, who heads an Iraqi nonprofit group that promotes social harmony, says there is great hesitation over intermarriage – and many divorces are precipitated by sectarian conflict. "Our social fabric has frayed greatly," says Ms. Edwar. "This gesture is great as it brings people together and encourages patriotism."

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