Where Your Name Can Be a Death Sentence

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After being kidnapped by Shi'ite thugs, Omar and his brother Mohammed made IDs with false Shia names

When he spotted the black Opel driving toward him on a recent evening, Omar Farooq knew he was about to confront his worst fears. Twice that week, the high school student had been chased by gunmen in a similar vehicle. On both occasions he had been in his own car and was able to get away. Now, walking down a narrow street toward his home in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, the 16-year-old was helpless. "They had me. Either they would take me or shoot me down as I tried to run." The Opel stopped, the rear door swung open, and one of the passengers pointed a pistol at him. Another reached out and dragged Omar in by the collar. Tires squealing, the car pulled away with Omar lying in a heap on the floor.

The two men in the backseat began to kick and pistol-whip him, ordering him to "confess" to being a Sunni and demanding to know his name. For months, Omar had heard stories of Sunni boys and men being snatched, tortured and killed by Shi'ite death squads. Because Omar is a common Sunni name, he claimed to be "Haider," a Shi'ite. But not only did his captors know his real name, they even knew that Omar had been named after his father. "They kept saying, "Omar, son of Omar, you have an evil name," he says.

For the next two hours, he endured constant beating as the car drove around the neighborhood. Only when the car ran into a checkpoint staffed by U.S. troops did Omar realize he might not be killed. Rather than risk being discovered by the Americans, his captors opened the door and tossed him into the street with a warning: "You may escape now, Omar — but with a name like yours, you're never going to be safe."

It's indicative of the danger of daily life in Baghdad these days that the very basis of your identity can mark you for death. For combatants in Iraq's low-boil civil war — which has erupted anew in the capital, with dozens of Sunnis killed by Shi'ite militants in the last few days — identifying the enemy can be difficult. Shi'ites and Sunnis share a common ethnicity and have a hard time telling themselves apart. And so the killers rely on a cruder vetting process: choosing victims based on their first name, which for many Iraqis is their only religiously distinguishing characteristic.

To the Shi'ite death squads responsible for many of the worst recent atrocities, no Sunni name incites more bile than Omar. (The original Omar was Islam's second Caliph and is reviled by Shi'ites who believe he worked against the interests of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.) More than a dozen Omars interviewed by TIME say that when they produce identification cards bearing their name, they regularly endure harassment by Shi'ite policemen and government officials. Others have met a more gruesome fate. In a single incident last earlier this year, the bodies of 14 Omars were found in a Baghdad garbage dump. They had all been killed with a single bullet to the head, and their ID cards were placed carefully on their chests. It has, says Saleh Mutlak, a prominent Sunni politician, "become the most dangerous name in Iraq."

Because having the wrong identity can be fatal, more and more Baghdadis are taking steps to adopt new ones. The market for counterfeit IDs is booming. Since the start of this year, the asking price has doubled to $100 per card. Iraqi IDs are primitive, with data written by hand on cards that are then laminated. Forgers can churn out scores a day. And that's just one survival technique for those in the line of fire. Websites like the Iraqi League (www.iraqirabita.org) offer detailed tips on how Sunnis can pass themselves off as Shi'ites — like how to pray in public places (there are small differences between the Shi'ite and Sunni postures), or how to acquire a southern Iraqi accent (the majority of southerners are Shi'ite). The site advises Sunnis to memorize the names of the 12 Shi'ite imams — a handy list is provided — in preparation for interrogation by the police. And they are warned against using mujahedin anthems as ringtones on their cell phones, a practice common among sympathizers of the Sunni insurgency. There's also useful advice on how and where to get a fake ID.

But Iraqis know that this may not be enough to protect them. In the days following Omar Farooq's harrowing experience, his family quickly acquired fake IDs for all its children. Seeking police protection was never an option — many of the cops in the neighborhood are former members of the Mahdi Army, the violent Shi'ite militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The family didn't feel it could turn to Shi'ite neighbors for support, either. Since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi'ite mosque in Samarra, relations between Shi'ites and Sunnis in mixed neighborhoods have turned frosty. Omar stopped speaking with the Shi'ite friends who used to be his soccer teammates.

Instead, the family locked itself indoors and set up a round-the-clock watch at the front gate. When the black Opel returned to the neighborhood one evening, Omar's older brother Mohammed chased after it, firing his Kalashnikov into the air. The car never returned, but the family decided it had had enough. Omar and his mother fled to Jordan. Speaking to TIME shortly before leaving, Omar worried that he might never return. "To be forced [out] because of my name ...," he says, before his voice trails off. The grim reality is that for Omar and countless others like him, the only sure way to survive in Iraq is to leave it.