BAGHDAD — For seven days, the space in the newspaper where Moayed Neama Samarayie's steady lines once danced was stark white, a simple black band of mourning across the lower left corner and the political cartoonist's signature on the right. It stood in remembrance of a life of art, humor and incendiary politics.
"I'm not throwing Molotov cocktails," Samarayie said in a lengthy interview shortly before his Nov. 27 death of a stroke at age 54.
"For me, caricature is a form of protest," he said. "I am describing the explosions in the hearts of people who are filled with hate."
Amid the grim, bloody realities of contemporary Iraq, the late Samarayie led a handful of fellow illustrators in livening up newspapers with provocative political art that portrays the country's dark ironies. U.S. troops, as well as insurgents, the government and even the media, have become legitimate targets for ridicule under Iraq's new rules of engagement.
Samarayie, an art teacher who became postwar Iraq's most famous caricaturist, first learned to walk the tightrope a quarter of a century ago.
Newly emboldened by Saddam Hussein's 1979 ascent to the presidency, the security apparatchiks arrested him and locked him up for three days. The longtime Communist Party activist could have been executed or sentenced to a lengthy prison term. But he was no ordinary dissident. The celebrated and acerbic cartoonist was beloved even by his tormentors.
We like you, the officials told him. Cut off ties to the troublemakers in your past and stay away from overtly political topics and we'll let you go -- we'll even let you keep doodling, he recalled them telling him. Samarayie, who had a child and another on the way, quietly leashed his pen, confining himself to drawing on existential and humanitarian topics.
But 24 years later, he unfurled his brash and brutal illustrations with a vengeance that has inspired Iraq's caricaturists.
In one drawing, a Neanderthal-like insurgent addresses a colleague holding two bloody severed heads. "What do you mean you've tried everything [to derail the political process]?" he says. "You haven't tried cutting off the air supply."
Another takes on all Iraqis, depicting the violence lurking just below the veneer of cordiality by showing two men smiling and shaking hands as they blow off each other's heads.
Analysts of Iraqi opinion say they pay special attention to editorial cartoons, which lack the byzantine and often indecipherable decorum of editorials.
"We think they're some of the strongest statements in [Iraqi] newspapers," said a U.S. Embassy official who monitors Iraqi media. "The language is direct. There's an economy that can't be found with editorials. We find the editorial cartoons to be potent expressions. They tend to express upfront what the articles can't."
For Iraqi cartoonists such as Samarayie and his contemporaries, the new era brought its own perils. They have found themselves attempting to explore volatile topics in a dangerous climate in which the taboos are far from clear.
In one of his drawings, Abdul Raheem Yasser takes on Iraq's inexperienced police force: Officers are shown diligently frisking a man, apparently unaware of the huge revolver in his hand.
Sameer Wakil, a Health Ministry employee who draws for the newspaper Azzaman, mocks the local government in an illustration showing a father with empty pockets telling his son that he can give lunch money only every other day, much like a new Baghdad law that dictates how often drivers can use their cars.
"The caricaturist should be a naughty boy," said Khudair Hemiyar, a 50-year-old native of Hilla who studied to become an economist before taking up a pen to make a living. "Iraqi publications are sleepy. It's my job to wake them up."
In one of Hemiyar's illustrations, he lashes out at Iraq's neighbors, international aid agencies and the West: A group of men, some with tears in their eyes, and another wearing the cross of relief agencies, rush to the aid of a leaking oil barrel. A bleeding Iraqi lies nearby, ignored.
Hemiyar takes on the Americans with relish. One drawing shows the gun turret of a U.S. tank extending a microphone into the face of a stunned Iraqi. "How does it feel to be living in a democracy?" the man is asked. In another, Uncle Sam, watching a U.S. soldier angrily pointing a gun at a frightened Iraqi, paints a picture of a smiling soldier giving a flower to the Iraqi.
The cartoonists' freedom comes after years of isolation and fear under Hussein. Though they were relatively free to draw what they wanted during the first years of Baath Party rule in the 1970s, they had to limit their topics once Hussein tightened his grip around the 1980 start of the Iran-Iraq war.