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Iraq’s War Widows Face Dire Need With Little Aid

by Timothy Williams

BAGHDAD - Her twin sisters were killed trying to flee Falluja in 2004. Then her husband was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad just after she had become pregnant. When her own twins were 5 months old, one was killed by an explosive planted in a Baghdad market.

Ahmed Hassan Sharmal, right, and his extended family of 30, including three war widows, are forced to share only two trailers. (Johan Spanner for The New York Times) Now, Nacham Jaleel Kadim, 23, lives with her remaining daughter in a trailer park for war widows and their families in one of the poorest parts of Iraq's capital.

That makes her one of the lucky ones. The trailer park, called Al Waffa, or "Park of the Grateful," is among the few aid programs available for Iraq's estimated 740,000 widows. It houses 750 people.

As the number of widows has swelled during six years of war, their presence on city streets begging for food or as potential recruits by insurgents has become a vexing symbol of the breakdown of Iraqi self-sufficiency.

Women who lost their husbands had once been looked after by an extended support system of family, neighbors and mosques.

But as the war has ground on, government and social service organizations say the women's needs have come to exceed available help, posing a threat to the stability of the country's tenuous social structures.

With the economy limping along, dependent almost entirely on the price of crude oil, and the government preoccupied with rebuilding and quelling sectarian violence, officials acknowledge that little is likely to change soon.

"We can't help everybody," said Leila Kadim, a managing director in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. "There are too many."

Among Iraqi women aged 15 to 80, 1 in 11 are estimated to be widows, though officials admit that figure is hardly more than a guess, given the continuing violence and the displacement of millions of people. A United Nations report estimated that during the height of sectarian violence here in 2006, 90 to 100 women were widowed each day.

In large cities like Baghdad, the presence of war widows is difficult to ignore. Cloaked in black abayas, they wade through columns of cars idling at security checkpoints, asking for money or food. They wait in line outside mosques for free blankets, or sift through mounds of garbage piled along the street. Some live with their children in public parks or inside gas station restrooms.

Officials at social service agencies tell of widows coerced into "temporary marriages" - relationships sanctioned by Shiite tradition, often based on sex, which can last from an hour to years - to get financial help from government, religious or tribal leaders.

Other war widows have become prostitutes, and some have joined the insurgency in exchange for steady pay. The Iraqi military estimates that the number of widows who have become suicide bombers may be in the dozens.

In the past several weeks, even as the government has formed commissions to study the problem, it has begun a campaign to arrest beggars and the homeless, including war widows.

The issue has burst into public view in some unusual ways recently. When an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush in December, he shouted that he was doing so on behalf of the war's widows and orphans. During the campaign for last month's provincial elections, political rallies featured heart-rending songs of the suffering of widows.

Those sentiments, though, have yet to translate into political action.

Efforts to increase the government stipend for widows - currently about $50 a month and an additional $12 per child - have stalled. By comparison, the price of a five-liter container of gasoline, used for cars as well as home generators, is about $4.

Still, only about 120,000 widows - roughly one in six - receive any state aid, according to government figures. Widows and their advocates say that to receive benefits they must either have political connections or agree to temporary marriages with the powerful men who control the distribution of government funds.

"It is blackmail," said Samira al-Mosawi, chairwoman of the women's affairs committee in Parliament. "We have no law to treat this point. Widows don't need temporary support, but a permanent solution."

The latest plan, proposed by Mazin al-Shihan, director of the Baghdad Displacement Committee, a city agency, is to pay men to marry widows. "There is no serious effort by the national government to fix this problem, so I presented my own program," he said.

When asked why the money should not go directly to the women, Mr. Shihan laughed.

"If we give the money to the widows, they will spend it unwisely because they are uneducated and they don't know about budgeting," he said. "But if we find her a husband, there will be a person in charge of her and her children for the rest of their lives. This is according to our tradition and our laws."

Abdulalah F. Alafar, who runs the Maryam Establishment for Children charity in Baghdad, said he had become so frustrated by the lack of government support that he had begun to turn away war widows. He said he planned to close his organization entirely this month.

"If the situation progresses, we will be just like India," he said. Questioning the government's priorities, he added, "They are busy building public fountains when we don't have water in the sink."

The trailer park, in Baghdad's Al Shaab district, opened four months ago. Its 150 identical aluminum trailers sit in neat rows amid a vast field of puddles, their white exteriors already stained tan by blowing sand.

A short walk down a muddy path from Ms. Kadim's trailer, Ahmed Hassan Sharmal, 58, and his extended family of 30 are moving into trailer numbers 39 and 40. Three of his daughters-in-law are widows. Fatherless children seem to fill every bit of the trailers' available space, playing and giggling while their mothers wonder where everyone will sleep.

Mr. Sharmal, a Shiite, lost three sons to sectarian violence in Diyala Province, which was a center of the Sunni insurgency, during a 10-month period in 2006.

One son, a doctor, was killed in a parking garage as he walked to his car. A second died after gunmen sprayed bullets across a field of soccer players. The third, a police officer, was shot in the back of the head while on his way to work.

Jinan, 25, had been married to the doctor. She has no money and little freedom. One of her brothers-in-law, an unemployed former police officer, said he planned to marry her, a match arranged by her in-laws. As he spoke, her 4-year-old son squirmed in her mother-in-law's lap.

Soon, Jinan will no longer be a widow, but she refuses to look at the man chosen to be her husband. As she hangs her head as if to cry, the conversation continues without her.

Anwar J. Ali and Suadad al-Salhy contributed reporting.

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