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AFTER THE WAR

Iraqi Love Stories in a Time of Uncertainty

May 08, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — Ahmed Mahood's is a fairy-tale love story. After fleeing Iraq 11 years ago, the 32-year-old returned to his homeland in March with the U.S. military and helped depose Saddam Hussein. On Wednesday, he married the beautiful young woman he had last seen when she was a child of 9.

"I just remember she was very cute," he said of his bride, Rana, during the wedding celebrations. In the year he and his cousin were engaged, he had only Rana's picture, her voice on the telephone and her e-mails to treasure.

In Iraq's predominantly Shiite south, the last two months were a holy time when people do not marry, celebrate or listen to music. The war also intervened. Now, couples who could not marry for months -- or in some cases for years because grooms were in hiding from the Hussein regime -- are going ahead with their weddings.

The celebrations are raucous but bittersweet, because the couples face the future full of hope for a happier life without Hussein and yet uncertain about their prospects in this shattered country. Indeed, at rites where men normally carry guns to fire off in wild salutes of happiness, today's grooms are carrying them for protection.

Unlike Mahood's nuptials, Alaa Abass' wedding was not gilded with happily-ever-after optimism. After the ceremony Tuesday, the 30-year-old took his bride back to his home in one of Basra's poor neighborhoods, speeding through an apocalyptic landscape in this once beautiful city. Whirls of silver lining that looters had stripped from telecommunications cables lay in ribbons all over the road like a present for the bride. Barefoot children ran screaming happily beside the wedding convoy.

Mahood, a handsome, energetic man who came back to his country as a member of the Pentagon-trained Free Iraqi Forces, plans to take his wife home to Portland, Ore. But the best hope the thoughtful, restrained Abass has is to get out of the Hayaneya neighborhood, known in Basra as the main den of the Ali Babas -- the popular nickname here for looters and thieves, taken from "The Thousand and One Nights."

Iraqi weddings are loud, exuberant affairs. Flower-decked wedding cars, trailed by convoys of buses and vans, race through the streets tooting their horns. Musicians, squashed with their instruments into taxis, blast out sounds. Dancers pulsate wildly on flatbed trucks.

In this chaotic, joyful parade, the cars screech to a halt and people leap out to gyrate on the sidewalk, before jumping back into vehicles, shrieking off and dancing somewhere else. When the bride arrives at the groom's home, the shrill sound of women ululating rises like birds and men fire guns into the air.

But compared with Iraqi wedding traditions, this week's celebrations were considered tame, subdued stuff. Families are avoiding large, ostentatious celebrations because of poor security and losses from the war.

"A lot of people were killed or hurt in the war. We've got to respect their feelings," said Mahood, who wore his camouflage uniform, with the U.S. flag on his shoulder, for the first part of Wednesday's celebrations.

As he and his family members danced ecstatically in his family home, his mother, dying of lung cancer, lay on a mat in the corner -- watching a dreamed-of event unfold before her eyes.

When Mahood became engaged to his cousin last May, he never imagined that within a year he would get married in an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein.

In 1991, when Shiites in the south rose up against the regime in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, Mahood fought with the rebels for two days before Hussein's army regained control of Basra. The regime arrested his brother, who had not been a part of the rebellion, to pressure him to surrender.

"My father said, 'If you turn yourself in, you'll be shot for sure.' " Mahood fled, seeking help from the U.S. Army, and he eventually was granted asylum.

After he went to the Americans, another brother was detained. But both brothers eventually were freed by the regime.

When Mahood wanted to marry, he consulted his family, who recommended the match to him. But he made the decision that Rana was the one for him. And with his good looks and connections to the United States, he was considered a catch for the 20-year-old Rana, who has carried his picture with her since she was 17.

His wedding plan had to be secret. In January, he knew he was coming to Iraq but could say nothing to his fiancee because of military secrecy.

"I said, 'What do you think if someday I'm going to be there at your door? How will you feel?' She said, 'It's not going to happen.' I said, 'Wait and see.' "

Soon after he entered the southern city of Umm al Qasr as part of the U.S. Army's 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, his family in Iraq saw him interviewed on CNN. The whole family, including Rana, turned up at his unit to see him. It was the first time he had seen his fiancee since she was 9. Now stationed in Baghdad, he asked for 10 days off to get married.

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