BAGHDAD — Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has an unusual proposal to mend some of Iraq's sectarian wounds: He offers mixed couples a $2,000 "gift" if they get married.
Before the U.S. invasion, intermarriage between Shiites and Sunnis was fairly common. As sectarian fighting ripped apart the country, intermarriage became a rarity.
Now that the security situation is relatively calm, the Iraqi government wants to nudge couples of mixed sects to get hitched, hoping that will repair the relationship between Iraq's majority Shiite and minority Sunni populations.
"After 2006, we found that mixed marriages had stopped," said Raad Majeed Mohammed, an aide to al-Hashemi, a Sunni and one of Iraq's two vice presidents. "The idea behind this project is that promoting love and socializing between Iraq's people is good for the country."
About a dozen mixed couples will take part in a mass wedding Friday and will receive their $2,000 gifts, Mohammed said. An additional 375 same-sect couples will join the celebration, but they'll receive $750, Mohammed said. The government wants to help those cash-strapped couples in getting their start, he said.
Al-Hashemi has doled out cash gifts to dozens of mixed couples over the past year.
Mohammed said the mass wedding celebration will include a banquet and music. The government is paying for gowns for the brides and suits for the grooms, as well as for hotel rooms for the couples to spend their first night together as husband and wife.
Mohammed al-Rubaiee, 30, a Shiite from southwest Baghdad, said the money will come in handy as he begins his life with Taghreed al-Samaraee, 21, a Sunni who grew up across the street from him.
Al-Rubaiee said he had his eye on al-Samaraee for years.
Their families were friendly, and al-Samaraee's father regularly invited al-Rubaiee over for dinner at their home.
In February 2007, as sectarian tensions rose in their neighborhood of mostly Shiites, al-Samaraee's family abandoned their home and fled to north-central Iraq. Many other Sunni neighbors left the area, and outsiders were squatting in their empty houses.
Al-Rubaiee said the low point came when his soon-to-be father-in-law called and asked him to sell the family's furniture.
"I told him, 'No, things will get better. You will come back again, and you will need that furniture,' " al-Rubaiee said.
Al-Samaraee recalled that while her family was away, al-Rubaiee would regularly call her father to comfort him and urge him to come back. Her family did return to Baghdad last December, and the couple became engaged in August.
She said she is hopeful that Iraq's worst days are in the past, so she and al-Rubaiee can raise a family without concern about their different sects and possible violence.
"Mohammed is a good man," al-Samaraee said. "We read the same Quran, worship the same God and have faith in the same prophet. God willing, there will be no more division."
Discord between the sects dates back to the seventh century over the succession of the prophet Mohammed, a dispute that led to splitting the Islam religion into Sunni and Shiite branches.
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the minority Sunni population held disproportionate power in Saddam Hussein's regime, and allegiance to Saddam trumped religious identity.
After the United States toppled Saddam's regime in 2003, the majority Shiites came to power, and sectarian tensions increased.
The strife worsened in 2006 after the bombing of the Askariya shrine, an important Shiite site in the majority Sunni city of Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. The attack led to a near civil war between the sects.
Tensions have diminished, and sectarian violence has plummeted from the worst days of the war.
Even so, some of the couples who signed up for the cash reward say their plans to marry across sectarian lines draw mixed feelings from loved ones.
"I even noticed some hesitation from my own family," said Aws Saad Abdul Jabbar, 23, a Sunni marrying a Shiite woman this week. "I told them I like the girl, and being from another sect is not a factor. Her way of thinking and morals are more important than sect."