By John Leland & Namo Abdulla - November 20, 2010





Sirwa Hama Amin, with her son in Erbil, Iraq. Members of Ms. Amin’s family shot her and killed her husband because they disapproved of the marriage.


DOKAN, Iraq — Serving small glasses of sugary tea, Qadir Abdul-Rahman Ahmed explained how things went bad with the neighbors. It was not true, he said, that his brothers had threatened to drown his niece if she tried to marry the young man down the street.

“We are not against humanity,” he explained. “I told my brother, if she wants to marry, you can’t stop her.”

But the couple should never have married without permission.

“The girl and the boy should be killed,” he said. “It’s about honor. Honor is more important for us than religion.”

Honor killing has a long history in Iraq and here in the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. But even here, this couple’s case stood out because the man was killed, not the woman, and because of the political clout of the warring families.

As some Iraqi lawmakers try to crack down on honor killing, the case — in which there have been no arrests — also illustrates how difficult it can be to uproot a deep-seated tribal honor code.

More than 12,000 women were killed in the name of honor in Kurdistan from 1991 to 2007, according to Aso Kamal of the Doaa Network Against Violence. Government figures are much lower, and show a decline in recent years, and Kurdish law has mandated since 2008 that an honor killing be treated like any other murder. But the practice continues, and the crime is often hidden or disguised to look like suicide.

It was in this climate that Mr. Ahmed’s niece, Sirwa Hama Amin, fell in love with her neighbor, Aram Jamal Rasool, in this village in northern Iraq.

On a recent afternoon in the home of Mr. Rasool’s father, Ms. Amin, 22, showed wedding portraits of herself and Mr. Rasool: a smiling young couple in formal dress, the bride showing none of the strain that marked the pale woman displaying the photographs.

Ms. Amin and Mr. Rasool, 27, grew up across the dusty road from each other, where each family had expanded in a string of houses so close together that their roofs nearly touched. Mr. Rasool’s father, Jamal Rasool Salih, 58, a retired general in the Kurdish military, or pesh merga, helped Ms. Amin’s family move to Dokan from Iran in 1993, and the two families became intertwined.

Like General Salih, Ms. Amin’s brothers and uncles joined the pesh merga and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the town’s dominant political party. One of Ms. Amin’s brothers married the general’s daughter and became his bodyguard; the general’s son Aram was a regular visitor in Ms. Amin’s home.

Still, when the couple fell in love a couple of years ago, they kept their passion secret, knowing their families would not approve. General Salih said he considered Ms. Amin’s relatives unruly soldiers and hellcats, always shooting people. Ms. Amin’s relatives mocked Mr. Rasool because he limped.

The problems started when Ms. Amin’s brother caught her sending a text message to Mr. Rasool on her cellphone. In socially regimented Iraq, cellphones and the Internet have enabled lovers to communicate outside the censorious eyes of their families. But this liberation has come at a price, said Behar Rafeq, director of the Shelter for Threatened Women in Erbil. Of the 24 women in the shelter on a recent day, 15 had encountered threats or violence because of their communications on cellphones or Facebook, Ms. Rafeq said.

Ms. Amin said her male relatives threatened to drown her and took away her phone.

Mr. Ahmed, Ms. Amin’s uncle, denied the threats. If the two wished to marry, he said, the appropriate way was for General Salih, accompanied by a delegation of tribal leaders, to ask for her hand. Instead, he sent surrogates.

“If someone doesn’t come and ask respectfully, how can you agree to that?” he asked.

General Salih said he did not want the marriage, either.

Ms. Amin became a captive in her home. One of Mr. Rasool’s brothers, Rizgar Jamal Rasool, 36, said that when he visited, he found Ms. Amin tearful and beaten, her face swollen.

Ms. Amin and Mr. Rasool became desperate, she said, and plotted ways to kill themselves.

On Sept. 2, 2009, she sneaked out of her parents’ house, walking across the roofs of the adjoining homes and down to a Toyota Land Cruiser. Mr. Rasool was waiting inside, with a grenade he had stolen from his father. “I said, ‘Let’s kill ourselves,’ ” Ms. Amin said. “He said, ‘No, let’s only do it if they find us.’ ”

Instead, the couple went to the police, explaining that they had been threatened because they wanted to marry. Mr. Rasool was held for possession of the grenade; Ms. Amin was sent to a shelter for battered women.

“He was arrested because I wanted him arrested for safety,” General Salih said. “The day they ran away, her uncle, a military captain, called me and said, ‘I’ll burn your house and kill you all if you don’t get the couple back today.’ ”

The couple appealed to the court, and two weeks later, after submitting their paperwork, they were married.

Though Ms. Amin’s family objected to the marriage, she said, they agreed to a truce: if the newlyweds promised to leave Dokan and never return, her relatives agreed not to hunt her down.

For three and a half months the couple lived in Sulaimaniya, an hour from Dokan. Then, on Jan. 2 around 9 p.m., Ms. Amin said, she was in the bathroom when she heard gunshots and her husband shouting her name.

She opened the bathroom door and saw her husband covered in blood and one of her brothers aiming a gun at her. “I saw only my brother, but someone else shot Aram,” she said. Before the smoke cleared, gunmen fired 17 bullets into Mr. Rasool’s chest and 4 into Ms. Amin’s leg and hip, General Salih said.

According to Mr. Ahmed, the brother who did the shooting was Hussein Hama Amin, a soldier in the pesh merga. Mr. Amin denied killing his brother-in-law but said he paid $10,000 to another brother, and to one of Mr. Rasool’s brothers, to kill the couple.

“Why should she live after she has been that irresponsible about the honor of her family?” Mr. Amin said.

Ms. Amin was two months pregnant at the time.

The authorities in Kurdistan have made great strides against honor killing, said Kurdo Omer Abdulla, director of the General Directorate to Trace Violence Against Women, a government agency. “Every year we see a decrease in the statistics of violence against women,” she said.

For the two families, the killing did not resolve the conflict.

The police arrested no one. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, tribal leaders and clerics brought the families together in a formal council session in front of more than 4,000 local residents.

General Salih said he was pressed by the party to forgive his son’s killers and promise not to kill them.

Ms. Amin’s family was required to promise not to kill her. The two families provide conflicting accounts on whether money was also exchanged.

Her relatives said they have disowned her but would not harm her. “May God kill her,” Hussein Hama Amin said. “We will not kill her.”

In General Salih’s living room, Ms. Amin dandled her 4-month-old son, named Aram after her husband. By Kurdish custom she is now disgraced and unsuitable for marriage.

She lives a few hundred feet from the family that cast her out, in a house filled with weapons, afraid that her relatives will try to kill her. When she leaves the house, she is escorted by armed in-laws.

General Salih remains bitter at his neighbors, the party and the tribal leaders, who have refused to make any arrests.

“I’m a powerful person,” he said. “I could kill them. But I don’t.”

“They should get arrested,” he said. “Instead they get salaries. There is no law.”