BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government is offering Sunnis and Shiites the equivalent of nearly $2,000 to find spouses in the other sect, part of an attempt to heal the bloody sectarian divide that has shaken the country in recent years.
Mixed marriages between the two major Muslim sects were unthinkable at the height of violence that has gripped Iraq since 2005 and exploded following the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in 2006.
Many Sunni-Shiite couples had to separate, as insurgents and sectarian militias threatened their families with kidnapping and death. Mixed communities were ripped apart as thousands were forced from their homes and made to move to areas controlled by militias of their own religious sect.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi launched his mixed-marriage project in the hope that it will help re-form ties that once seemed irreparably sundered.
"Our day calls for optimism and goodness that Iraq is building, and there is a future for the Iraqis regardless of their beliefs," al-Hashimi said of the effort.
The program offers about $1,800 to mixed couples, part of a larger government system that offers $1,000 to all new brides and grooms. Though the Iraqi government doesn't keep statistics on how many mixed marriages they have helped, they say they have spent over $3 million to promote them — and their project is already bearing fruit.
"I didn't face any difficulty," said Ameer, a young Sunni from Baghdad who received government aid when he married his wife Moruj, a Shia. "Her family didn't oppose the marriage."
Iraq had a long tradition of marriage between Sunnis and Shiites, unions that for hundreds of years helped bind communities together. The program and continued reconciliation in cities like Baghdad have had a desired effect as many Iraqis now say they are Iraqi first and foremost.
Ameer and Moruj told FOX News they felt they weren't in danger over their decision to marry and believed God would protect them, though they remain wary of their safety and security in Baghdad.
With Moruj holding her baby in her arms, she explained what she hoped for the future in Iraq:
"I wish to get rid of the current sad feeling among Iraqis (so that) when we leave our home we feel safe."