DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – 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.”

“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.”


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