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A Match Made in Limbo

Times Staff Writer

The bride wore a below-the-knee pink and ivory dress, her hair falling in loose ringlets. The groom wore combat fatigues and body armor, his M-16 rifle propped nearby. As they recited their vows, her hand trembled so hard he had trouble slipping the ring onto her finger.

Sgt. Sean Blackwell, 27, who has served for the past seven months with U.S. forces in Iraq, wed his 25-year-old Iraqi fiancee two months ago in a hasty, clandestine ceremony staged while he snatched a few moments away from his foot patrol in downtown Baghdad.

Now he and his bride wonder when -- or even whether -- they will be able to live together as husband and wife. He is confined to base in Baghdad, facing possible military discipline because he left his patrol. She lives quietly in the capital with her mother, fearing retribution from fellow Iraqis who might consider her a traitor for falling in love with a member of the occupying U.S. Army. They have not seen each other since their Aug. 17 marriage.

“We love each other so much,” said E., a petite, lively physician from a wealthy Iraqi family who speaks fluent English with only the slightest trace of an accent. “All we want is to be together.”

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Because E. -- she does not want her full name used out of her fear of other Iraqis’ anger -- has no access to a working phone in Baghdad, Blackwell uses his infrequent phone privileges to call his mother, Vickie McKee. And in these conversations, McKee says, her son talks of little but his newfound love.

“He tells me that she’s just the most beautiful, the sweetest thing, the most wonderful thing that ever walked the Earth,” McKee, who lives in the Pensacola, Fla., suburb of Pace, said in a phone interview. “And how he can’t wait until all this is over and he can just be with her.”

That probably won’t be any time soon.

Blackwell and Cpl. Brett Dagen, a 37-year-old soldier from his unit who also married an Iraqi woman in the same ceremony, are waiting to find out whether they will be charged with dereliction of duty -- a serious offense that carries the threat of dishonorable discharge and possible time in military prison.

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Even if they are not formally charged, the men will probably have to wait until the end of their tour of duty in Iraq next year before they can begin the lengthy process of obtaining U.S. visas for their brides.

It is not against civilian or military law for a U.S. citizen, even an active-duty soldier, to marry an Iraqi national. What is at issue here, according to military officials, is whether Blackwell disobeyed orders by leaving his patrol route, however briefly.

In a case like this, the soldier’s commanding officer has broad discretionary powers to determine whether a possible breach of duty has taken place. Blackwell has told his mother that his commanding officer did not object to his initial friendship with E. but became worried when it blossomed into romance -- and even more alarmed when Blackwell converted to Islam to marry E.

Aside from the usual cross-cultural complications, cases like these highlight the delicate security considerations that have come to govern everyday dealings between Iraqis and Americans in the volatile postwar period.

U.S. troops consider themselves a friendly force in Iraq, but a tough and persistent guerrilla insurgency harries them with dozens of attacks each day. More than 100 American soldiers have been killed in combat since President Bush declared major fighting over May 1.

Because of perceived risks of disclosing too much information, friendships between soldiers and the Iraqis with whom they come in contact tend to develop only up to a point -- a distance that can make it difficult to understand a society whose ways are deeply alien to the troops.

E. and Blackwell met in April, days after the fall of Baghdad. The backdrop was dramatic: a city in chaos, shrouded in black smoke from hundreds of burning buildings, with looters running rampant and gunfire crackling through the night. Blackwell’s unit was stationed in the center of the capital, guarding the Health Ministry.

One day, an Iraqi woman with dancing eyes and waist-length curly hair approached the gates. She looked like a girl but was in fact a doctor, wanting to know if there was work for her at the ministry, which had come under temporary U.S. administration.

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Blackwell, standing sentry, was smitten. So was she.

“People don’t believe there is such a thing as love at first sight, but there is -- later on we both told each other that we felt it right away,” E. said. “But of course I didn’t let on at the time, not for anything. Iraqi girls don’t behave like that.”

E. returned to the ministry the next day and again a few days later, ostensibly to check on job prospects. But whenever they could, she and the tall, gray-eyed sergeant found a few moments to chat.

Those around them noticed the sparks flying.

“His translator said to me: ‘You’ve bewitched this man. All he does is ask me over and over if he is saying your name correctly,’ ” said E., whose multisyllabic name is musical but difficult for a non-Arabic speaker to pronounce.

Over the months, the two found ways to meet occasionally outside the base. Once they spent part of an afternoon together on the grounds of a former palace of Saddam Hussein that is now occupied by the Americans.

Through intermediaries, they exchanged small gifts and letters, sometimes saying in writing what they were too shy to say in person. By August, it was clear to them what they wanted to do.

Blackwell began studying the Koran in preparation for his conversion, which took place in early August before an Iraqi court. E. found a judge willing to marry them.

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And she broke the news to her mother, who is divorced from her estranged father, and her brother. To her relief, they were delighted for her, though worried about the repercussions.

“They said, ‘We can see you are really in love,’ ” E. said. “But they also said it was not going to be easy.”

They were right.

Prenuptial jitters are normal, but for E. and Blackwell, the wedding day was fraught with far more than the usual anxiety. By then, commanders concerned over the relationships had restricted Blackwell’s and Dagen’s off-base movements to their patrols. But the two thought they could find a way around that.

By painstaking prearrangement, the two brides, the judge and a few family members were waiting in the capital’s Adamiyah district, close to the route of the men’s foot patrol that day. But all knew that any last-minute change of duty could ruin their plans.

The double ceremony, held in the little courtyard of a restaurant off a busy street, took only 20 minutes, participants and witnesses said. The grooms doffed their helmets and laid aside their M-16 rifles while they recited their vows.

“He looked so handsome in his uniform,” E. said. “My hands were shaking, but not his.”

When the men’s superior officers learned of the wedding, the two were confined to base and denied any contact with their new wives. E. has had a few notes from Blackwell, passed on by sympathetic comrades, but has not seen or spoken to her husband since their wedding day.

E. does not want to talk about her falling-out with Dagen’s bride, formerly a close friend and also a physician, who believes E. has harmed the couples’ cause, antagonized the military and endangered the women by telling her story publicly. The other bride has refused requests for interviews.

The military has said little about the case. The men’s 3rd Battalion of the Florida National Guard’s 124th Infantry Regiment comes under the Army’s 1st Armored Division, whose public affairs office did not respond to requests for information about Blackwell.

Lt. Col. George Krivo, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said this week that the matter remained under investigation and that he had no information about any charges having been filed. Richard Alvoid, an immigration lawyer hired by Blackwell’s mother, said he had been told by the military that action against the two was still being weighed.

Despite all obstacles, love and war have a way of going hand in hand, and a number of other Iraqi women and American servicemen have formed bonds in the months since the toppling of Hussein’s government.

Neither the military nor the U.S. Consulate in Baghdad were able to provide a figure for the number of marriages between American troops and Iraqi nationals, but there have been enough that some military chaplains are providing special counseling for personnel contemplating matrimony with Iraqis.

Blackwell’s supporters, meanwhile, have questioned whether his brief absence from patrol should be viewed so harshly.

Several American soldiers serving in Baghdad said that in late summer, at the time of the wedding, it was not unusual for soldiers to be given nonspecific orders for a foot patrol in a city neighborhood -- to be told to simply show themselves, keep an eye out for potential problems, chat with as many residents as possible.

Both E. and her husband are well aware that some will dismiss their union as a joke or a sham.

E. scoffs at the notion that hers is a marriage of convenience, merely a ticket out of Iraq. With her medical training, and with many relatives living in the West, she says, she could easily find another way of getting to the United States or Europe. In fact, Blackwell’s circumstances at home in small-town Gulf Coast Florida are humbler than her own pampered upbringing.

“This isn’t about getting out of the country,” she said. “I’m going to be terribly sad to leave my family. This is about my love for my husband.”

If the two do manage an eventual reunion, E. will be a stepmother. Blackwell has two daughters, aged 3 and 7, one by a marriage that ended in divorce and another by a previous relationship. But E. says she has no qualms.

“They are his babies, and I will love them as if they are my own,” she said.

McKee says she has already forged a warm relationship with her new daughter-in-law through letters and e-mails.

“All I know is that these kids are in love, and they’re going through hell,” she said. “I just want them happy. And I just want them home.”

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this report.


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