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Sunday, September 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Marriage on rocks, Bahraini princess who fled to wed Marine goes home

Los Angeles Times

PHELAN, Calif. — The marriage between a former Marine and a member of the ruling family of Bahrain has hit the rocks, with the wife returning to her native land amid talk of a divorce.

Meriam Al-Khalifa Johnson flew to Washington, D.C., on Thursday to catch a flight back to Bahrain, which she fled in disguise in 1999 when her royal family objected to her clandestine romance with Jason Johnson, then a Marine stationed there on security duty.

She told friends last week that she and her husband are considering divorce and that her family was concerned for her safety because of violence aimed at people of Middle Eastern descent since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The couple had quarreled over money, with Meriam, 19, telling Jason, 26, to get a job, and him preferring to attend college.

"I love my wife deeply," Johnson said at his mother's home in rural San Bernardino County. "This was a surprise to us all ... We had some general aches and pains in our marriage but nothing bad, nothing like some of our friends. She never complained. She never said anything."

The couple had been living in Las Vegas since Al-Khalifa won a highly publicized fight with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to remain in the United States.

In May, the INS, under a program open to the spouses of U.S. citizens, issued Al-Khalifa a green card allowing her to remain permanently in this country. A divorce could cause her to lose that right. Under INS rules, a green card issued to the spouse of a citizen is provisional for two years.

If the marriage dissolves within two years, the green-card recipient has to assert that it ended because of abuse or intimidation. The rule is meant to protect women from remaining in dangerous marriages for fear of losing their green cards.

Also, if Al-Khalifa, whose father is a second cousin of Bahrain's ruling emir, stays in that country for 12 months she will be considered to have abandoned her residency in the United States, which will mean forfeiture of the green card.

To escape Bahrain, Al-Khalifa dressed in oversized clothes and pulled a New York Yankees cap over her eyes. Johnson and his buddies provided her with a phony Marine identification card, which helped her fool gun-toting airport security.

But by the time the couple landed in Chicago, the Bahraini government had petitioned the State Department to meet their plane and send Al-Khalifa back.

The dispute became a tricky international issue because of the close ties between Bahrain and the United States. The island nation in the Persian Gulf is one of this country's top allies in the region and provides a home port for numerous Navy ships.

Once back in the United States, Johnson was assigned to Camp Pendleton. The couple married in a chapel on the Las Vegas Strip and settled in base housing. Although she had lived in luxury in Bahrain, surrounded by servants and maids, Al-Khalifa insisted she enjoyed cooking and cleaning for her husband.

Busted in rank for having forged the Marine identification card, Johnson received an early discharge.

In seeking to stay in the United States, Al-Khalifa said she faced discrimination and physical harm if she returned to Bahrain because of animosity among the population toward women who socialize with non-Muslims.

Bahraini officials emphatically denied that she would be harmed. The INS sidestepped that issue by providing the green card, which kept the case from going to a political-asylum hearing.

An official at Bahrain's embassy in Washington, D.C., said Friday that Al-Khalifa had requested assistance in returning to Bahrain this week. The official declined further comment, calling the issue a family matter. The couple — young, good-looking and articulate — proved irresistible to the media. A television movie billed as "Romeo and Juliet set against Desert Storm" was shown on NBC.

The couple also made the rounds of television talk shows. "Oprah is going to be (annoyed)" at hearing of the marital estrangement, Johnson told his attorney Friday.

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