DAMASCUS, Syria — A dozen Iraqi men — Sunnis and Shiites alike — sat around a table in a Damascus restaurant, singing, drinking and sharing a camaraderie all but impossible in the sectarian killing fields back home.
"We can certainly choose our religious beliefs. But we have to realize the inevitable — that eventually we have to share everything in order to live in peace," said Salam Mohammed, a 34-year-old Sunni from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
More than 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland to escape Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings.
Once they reach the safety of Syria and other countries, many Iraqis shed sectarian bitterness and seek support from fellow countrymen regardless of religious sect.
Back in Baghdad, "being Sunni or Shiite is an issue that a lot depends on — including your life," said Saad Kadhem, a Shiite from the Iraqi capital. "The situation is different when you are out, because people see things differently. But inside Iraq, people are still blinded by hatred and grudges they carry against one another."
The phenomenon is not unique to Iraqis. A decade ago in the Balkans, Serbs and Muslims would kill each other on the front lines around Sarajevo but hang out together in exile in Germany or Austria — far removed from the hatreds back home.
In Syria, Jordan and other countries with large Iraqi refugee communities, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds mingle and socialize — rekindling a bond of nationhood that the violence back home threatens to destroy.
"The situation in Iraq didn't affect us, Iraqis living in Jordan," said Leila Adnan, a Sunni Muslim Iraqi housewife who fled to Jordan in 2003. "We socialize together, we exchange invitations to wedding parties and other social events."
She said Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites in Jordan still marry across the sectarian divide.
"There are mixed weddings, almost every week," she said, adding that she attended one last week between a Sunni woman and a Shiite man from a prominent family.
"Nobody at the party felt it was strange, or questioned their marriage," she said.
In Damascus, the home of Sundus al-Dulaimi, a 50-year-old Sunni from Anbar province, reflects the spirit which Iraqis seem to have kept alive outside their ravaged country.
Al-Dulaimi was hosting four members of a Shiite family. In June, she opened her doors to Kurdish friends, she said.
"We have to contain the crisis now before it's too late," al-Dulaimi said. "We should be putting our home (Iraq) back together again instead of dividing it."
Iraqis have several explanations for the explosion of sectarian hatred back home. Some accuse the Americans of setting Iraq's communities against one another in a divide and rule strategy.
Others point to the role of al-Qaida in Iraq — whose suicide bombings targeted Shiite civilians — and the Shiite militias that took vengeance on Sunnis simply because of their sect.
"Even in Baghdad, it is the government and the militias who are behind these disputes," Adnan said. "We hear that there are many mixed Sunni-Shiite marriages back home."
United against U.S. resolution
Al-Dulaimi blamed the Americans and their allies in the Shiite-led government who have "fueled sectarian strife for their personal ambition." Last week, hundreds of Iraqi refugees marched through Damascus streets to protest a U.S. Senate resolution recommending Iraq be divided along regional sectarian lines.
"Being strangers in other countries has taught us to be more tolerant of one another," said Ammar Sameer, a 30-year-old Iraqi businessman living in Jordan. "We have to learn how to seal any crack that was created by the evil forces that came with the (American) occupation."
Back at the Damascus restaurant, Mohammed, the Sunni from Tikrit, summoned a singer and requested a song glorifying Shiites and Sunnis as brothers. As encouragement, Mohammed took out a wad of cash from a bag and tossed the bills at the entertainer.
"I am the son of Fallujah, I am the son of Tikrit, I am the son of Sadr City," the singer crooned, carefully mentioning both Sunni and Shiite communities as Syrian and American bills floated down around him.
"I am very proud to say I am a Shiite Iraqi, and am sitting next to my Sunni friend and neighbor," Abu Mazin said as he threw his arms around a Sunni beside him.
Another guest, Mazin Baban, took pictures with his mobile phone.
"It's time for us to get rid of our differences ourselves without relying on strangers," he said. "People are beginning to realize that the problem is not with them, it's with our politicians."
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