By Omar al-Ibadi
BAGHDAD, Apr 14 (Reuters) Some flee the country. Others buy weapons. But Iraqis lining up at a state registry say the best protection against sectarian violence is a new name.
''I changed my name to Abdullah because it is a neutral name.
It could be Sunni or Shi'ite. My life is more precious than my name,'' said Omar Sami, an Arab Sunni university student.
Iraqis have become increasingly fearful that their religious allegiance could cost them their lives as the country slides towards civil war.
So names, many of which can clearly identify which sect you are from, have become a matter of life or death.
Bombings at mosques, hit squads and kidnappings have forced some people to apply legally for a new identity, a painful move in a country consumed by sectarian passions.
Shi'ites named Ali become Omar and Sunnis named Osman introduce themselves as Hussein, hoping to survive in densely populated mixed districts where victims of sectarian violence are killed on the streets every week.
In Baghdad, where both communities live side by side and people are often challenged at checkpoints or randomly by armed men, some choose the safest option of adopting neutral names like Ahmed or Mohammad, used by both Shi'ites and Sunnis.
Ayman al-Azzawi, an Arab Sunni taxi driver queuing up at the registry, said driving customers through Shi'ite or Sunni areas was like crossing communal minefields. Erasing his identity was the only option.
''I'm here to try to change my surname or even to omit it completely from my civil status card,'' he said. ''I live in Baghdad al-Jadeeda, where many were killed for just being Sunnis or hi'ites.'' The last names of Iraqis are tribal. So anyone who wants a new name must first get permission from a new tribe and then go through the registry office, a small room overflowing with files.
TAKING NO CHANCES Many are changing both names. Some prefer the less complicated task of changing their first names, and many more just lie about their names when they think it judicious.
''Forty percent of the people who come here change their names for sectarian reasons,'' said the registry clerk, who declined to give his name.
Iraqis say changing names was all but impossible under former President Saddam Hussein, whose pervasive intelligence agencies immediately became suspicious of such requests.
These days it's much easier. The process of registering a new name, which is then passed along to passport offices and the traffic department, takes about a month.
''It's really hard to change my name but I have a family to raise and look after. I will omit my surname from my ID in case I can't change my name,'' said Hassan al-Mosawi, the Shi'ite owner of an appliance shop.
Iraqis' concerns about being killed for their sect have deepened since the February bombing of a Shi'ite shrine pushed the country to the brink of an all-out sectarian conflict.
Some clothing and rings can also identify one's sect but many people now shun such signs to keep safe.
People like Abu Ali al-Maliki are especially vulnerable. The 52-year-old Shi'ite lives in Baghdad's most dangerous district, Dora, a predominantly Sunni area controlled by Muslim militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Residents say Shi'ites dressed in police uniforms also raid the area from time to time.
''I have been advised to change my sons names from Ali, Hassan, and Fatima to Sunni names. Many Shi'ite and Sunnis were killed in cold blood just because of their sect,'' he said.
''I want to live in peace and don't want my children to die just because of their names.'' REUTERS MSJ BS0814