Three decades of wars, massacres and sectarian killings have left Iraq with as many as a million widows, by Iraqi government count. Hameeda Ayed is one of them.
At 45, with three children, she is part of a vast sisterhood in a tortured land, and for the more than 100,000 who lost their husbands in the U.S.-led invasion and violent aftermath, the struggling postwar government is of little help.
Ayed is entitled to 150,000 dinars (about $130) a month from the government, plus 15,000 dinars (about $12) for each of her children. But after two years of chasing after official papers and signatures on her application, having no friends in high places to grease the wheels for her, she says she is giving up; the endless standing in line was making her neglect the children, aged 10, 12 and 15.
So she makes ends meet by selling snacks and sodas from her home in a Shiite enclave of southern Baghdad where she moved from a Sunni area after her husband died in the tit-for-tat killings of 2007.
"Our life has been turned into misery and desperation," she said. "This is what we got from occupation and the dreams of democracy: orphans, widows, homeless, displaced and fugitives."
Nahdah Hameed, the government's point person on women's social affairs, puts the number of widows at about 1 million, and even though the post-invasion violence has wound down, sporadic shootings and bombings continue to widow Iraqi women.
Besides the invasion, this nation of 27 million has gone through the 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf war, and Saddam Hussein's brutal campaigns against the Shiites and Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s.
The widows gather in dusty cemeteries. They squat on the dirt by their husbands' graves, sobbing and murmuring remembrances under a merciless sun. Children sit in their shadows, clinging to their mothers' flowing black robes.
Back in the cities, the women have to focus on their own survival and chase after benefits that fall short of what they need to stave off destitution. In interviews, several others describe predicaments similar to Ayed's.
"We have a disastrously high number of widows," said Jinan Mubarak, head of a nongovernmental organization that works to educate women and train them for jobs. "It has a serious social dimension and there are also the orphans to worry about."
The question of how to provide for those widows with no source of income has become a major concern for groups like Mubarak's as well as the authorities.
In 2008 the government set up the Directorate of Social Care for Women that is now gradually taking over the payment of stipends from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which was widely accused of inefficiency and corruption.
However, Hameed, the directorate's chief, complains that she lacks the funds to efficiently serve areas beyond the capital and lacks the authority to introduce reform and eradicate corruption in the ministry departments handling widows.
The post-2003 widows make a sharp contrast to those who lost husbands in previous wars. Saddam, flush with oil money, lavished plots of land, cars and generous pensions on the widows of the Iraq-Iran war, in which half a million Iraqis and Iranians died.
But the widows of the tens of thousands who died in Saddam's internal wars on Shiites, Kurds and political opponents in general usually were left struggling.
Mubarak and other women's activists say poverty is driving some Iraqi women into prostitution, both in Iraq and in neighboring Jordan and Syria, home to the Arab world's largest Iraqi refugee communities.
"Many of Iraq's neighbors are exploiting Iraqi women," said activist Suzan Kazim Kashkoul.
Also, she and other advocates say, the post-U.S. invasion violence has shrunk the pool of potential husbands for widows as well as single women over 30, and in the sectarian-charged postwar atmosphere, Sunni-Shiite marriages have become rare. The economy is in trouble yet the housing market is hot, making housing unaffordable for many.
"The economic crisis is the core cause of all the women's problems in Iraq," said Mubarak.
Iman Kazim, a 40-year-old mother of three, lives in Baghdad's Shiite district of Hurriyah where some of the worst sectarian violence raged.
Kisrah al-Hassani, the retired textile worker to whom she was married, was killed by a mortar explosion in January 2007 as he walked home from a food market. Al-Hassani had two wives, and Iman was his second, living with his brother and his family. After Al-Hassani was killed she married a baker more than 10 years her junior, but the union turned out badly — he beat her and her children — and she now wants a divorce.
Kisrah al-Hosni, the retired textile worker to whom she was married, was killed by a mortar explosion in January 2007 as he walked home from a food market. Kazim had two wives, and Iman was his second, living with his brother and his family. After Kazim was killed she married a baker more than 10 years her junior, but the union turned out badly — he beat her and her children — and she now wants a divorce.
Yet she is one of the lucky ones. She has managed to get a monthly pension of about $90 because her late husband worked for a state-owned textile factory, and has a job as a school janitor, which brings in $190 a month.
About $60 a month goes to buy electricity from a privately owned generator because the city experiences power cuts of up to 18 hours or more. Rent is high, and with three mouths to feed, she says she can afford to buy only "what is absolutely necessary."
Mubarak's dream is to get Kazim a job that reflects her high school diploma.
"I want a law that sets aside a percentage of positions for qualified widows in any new private sector project," she said. "I also want a body created to offer funding for small projects undertaken by widows."
Associated Press writers Mazin Yahya and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.