By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Iraq is offering a cash bonus to married Iraqi couples from different sectarian groups in a drive to heal rifts between communities and foster reconciliation.
At a ceremony in Baghdad to launch the new initiative on Tuesday, 250 recently married couples from across Iraq accepted awards from Sunni Arab vice President Tareq al-Hashemi. Those in mixed marriages received $1,500.
Hashemi did not specify whether all couples getting married in the future would qualify for the bonuses but said there would be a programme of ceremonies to celebrate mixed marriages.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence since the U.S. invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein, a minority Sunni who suppressed the majority Shi’ites and Kurds in the north.
Feuding between politicians from the sectarian groups has all but paralysed the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and stymied progress on reconciliation reforms Washington wants.
"Today we have a new programme in which we want to break the sectarian strife," Hashemi said.
"We will allocate a special bonus to those who break this hateful sectarian yoke and get married on the basis that his wife is an Iraqi, not because she is a Sunni or a Shi’ite."
Shi’ite Ali al-Kilabi, 29, married a Sunni woman two months ago and was happy with the $1,500 he received to pay off his marriage debts.
"There are people who are so fanatical. We are neutral, we do not pay attention to these matters. We do not differentiate between Shi’ites or Sunnis," he told Reuters.
"My wife and I do not argue because we are from a different sect. We condemn people who are sensitive about these matters."
The sectarian violence in Iraq has forced hundreds of thousands of people to move out of neighbourhoods dominated by one sect or another, leading to huge displacement of Iraqis.
According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report for August 2007, nearly two million Iraqis have left from their homes since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 sparked a wave of sectarian violence.
Um Fuad’s son, a Kurd, married a Sunni Arab a year ago. The couple was keen to get the money to pay hospital bills as his wife is about to have a baby. Um Fuad’s other son married a Shi’ite and needs the cash to pay off wedding debts.
"We do not differentiate between sects," she said.
But for some at the ceremony, the money was scant compensation for the loss and suffering they have endured since Saddam was toppled.
Um Ubaida, a 25-year-old Sunni civil servant, looked pale and expressionless as she went to receive the wedded couples bonus to help with her debts. She married last year and had a baby two months ago, but has not seen her husband for seven months.
"My husband is missing, he went to visit his brother in prison and he never came back," she said.