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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

A Match Made in Limbo

The groom put aside an M-16 to exchange vows with his Iraqi bride, but now the U.S. soldier is confined and their prospects unclear.

October 31, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The bride wore a below-the-knee pink and ivory dress, her hair falling in loose ringlets. The groom wore combat fatigues and body armor, his M-16 rifle propped nearby. As they recited their vows, her hand trembled so hard he had trouble slipping the ring onto her finger.

Sgt. Sean Blackwell, 27, who has served for the past seven months with U.S. forces in Iraq, wed his 25-year-old Iraqi fiancee two months ago in a hasty, clandestine ceremony staged while he snatched a few moments away from his foot patrol in downtown Baghdad.

Now he and his bride wonder when -- or even whether -- they will be able to live together as husband and wife. He is confined to base in Baghdad, facing possible military discipline because he left his patrol. She lives quietly in the capital with her mother, fearing retribution from fellow Iraqis who might consider her a traitor for falling in love with a member of the occupying U.S. Army. They have not seen each other since their Aug. 17 marriage.

"We love each other so much," said E., a petite, lively physician from a wealthy Iraqi family who speaks fluent English with only the slightest trace of an accent. "All we want is to be together."

Because E. -- she does not want her full name used out of her fear of other Iraqis' anger -- has no access to a working phone in Baghdad, Blackwell uses his infrequent phone privileges to call his mother, Vickie McKee. And in these conversations, McKee says, her son talks of little but his newfound love.

"He tells me that she's just the most beautiful, the sweetest thing, the most wonderful thing that ever walked the Earth," McKee, who lives in the Pensacola, Fla., suburb of Pace, said in a phone interview. "And how he can't wait until all this is over and he can just be with her."

That probably won't be any time soon.

Blackwell and Cpl. Brett Dagen, a 37-year-old soldier from his unit who also married an Iraqi woman in the same ceremony, are waiting to find out whether they will be charged with dereliction of duty -- a serious offense that carries the threat of dishonorable discharge and possible time in military prison.

Even if they are not formally charged, the men will probably have to wait until the end of their tour of duty in Iraq next year before they can begin the lengthy process of obtaining U.S. visas for their brides.

It is not against civilian or military law for a U.S. citizen, even an active-duty soldier, to marry an Iraqi national. What is at issue here, according to military officials, is whether Blackwell disobeyed orders by leaving his patrol route, however briefly.

In a case like this, the soldier's commanding officer has broad discretionary powers to determine whether a possible breach of duty has taken place. Blackwell has told his mother that his commanding officer did not object to his initial friendship with E. but became worried when it blossomed into romance -- and even more alarmed when Blackwell converted to Islam to marry E.

Aside from the usual cross-cultural complications, cases like these highlight the delicate security considerations that have come to govern everyday dealings between Iraqis and Americans in the volatile postwar period.

U.S. troops consider themselves a friendly force in Iraq, but a tough and persistent guerrilla insurgency harries them with dozens of attacks each day. More than 100 American soldiers have been killed in combat since President Bush declared major fighting over May 1.

Because of perceived risks of disclosing too much information, friendships between soldiers and the Iraqis with whom they come in contact tend to develop only up to a point -- a distance that can make it difficult to understand a society whose ways are deeply alien to the troops.

E. and Blackwell met in April, days after the fall of Baghdad. The backdrop was dramatic: a city in chaos, shrouded in black smoke from hundreds of burning buildings, with looters running rampant and gunfire crackling through the night. Blackwell's unit was stationed in the center of the capital, guarding the Health Ministry.

One day, an Iraqi woman with dancing eyes and waist-length curly hair approached the gates. She looked like a girl but was in fact a doctor, wanting to know if there was work for her at the ministry, which had come under temporary U.S. administration.

Blackwell, standing sentry, was smitten. So was she.

"People don't believe there is such a thing as love at first sight, but there is -- later on we both told each other that we felt it right away," E. said. "But of course I didn't let on at the time, not for anything. Iraqi girls don't behave like that."

E. returned to the ministry the next day and again a few days later, ostensibly to check on job prospects. But whenever they could, she and the tall, gray-eyed sergeant found a few moments to chat.

Those around them noticed the sparks flying.

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