BAGHDAD — Chivalry compelled Wafa Abd's husband to cross the cordon line.
Qusai Hussein Saidie was driving home from work and discovered U.S. troops had blocked off his neighborhood during a search for gunmen. But he was worried about Wafa, then seven months pregnant.
"He told them, 'My wife is afraid,' " she says, recalling what neighbors told her later. "He came into the neighborhood because he feared for my life and honor."
In the home Abd shared with her husband's family, she heard shooting, but did not suspect anything until the Americans came to her house with Saidie's identification papers.
She started keening, startling one soldier so much that he raised his rifle to her face, she says. Then the troops tried to calm her and apologized. Maybe they had been wrong to open fire, Abd says they told her, but after all, her husband had crossed a security line.
Trammeled in sorrowful black shrouds, often bereft of financial support and social standing, widows are among the most vulnerable members of Iraq's fraying society. Alternately pitied and shunned, widows receive only a small stipend from the government -- often as little as $25 a month.
The government has failed to protect inheritance rights, leaving the women vulnerable to traditions heavily biased toward male heirs. Their fatherless children are called orphans, stigmatizing them in a society in which intact families are paramount.
Government figures are sketchy. No one knows how many widows are wandering Iraq's violent landscape, but everybody here seems to know several. Anecdotal evidence -- and the deaths of at least 40,000 Iraqis since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion -- suggests they are increasing.
They are mostly a hidden consequence of the war, locked away from sight by grief or by protective, and occasionally predatory, relatives. Sometimes the ghostly, veiled figures can be seen lining up at government welfare offices or standing in traffic to beg.
Shorn of inherited wealth and barred from the few available jobs by chauvinism or their lack of skills or education, many widows are dependent upon overstressed extended families struggling to find their own foothold in Iraq's bomb-blasted economy.
When the soldiers left, Abd stumbled into the street to look for Saidie. Her neighbors tried to coax her back into the house, with all-too-transparent lies that her husband was unharmed, that everything was OK, that the burning husk of metal down the street wasn't Saidie's car.
"After the fire was out, I could not recognize him -- his bones and flesh looked like coal," Abd says. "They didn't even bother to pull him out of the car."
There was little sympathy at home, Abd says.
Although pregnant, she was beaten by her father-in-law, who also sold her gold jewelry. Her daughter, Zahra, was born two months later. When Abd's mother gave her some money to support Zahra, her brother beat her and ransacked her room, demanding the money, Abd says.
"His strike was very strong," she says. "I can't hear with one ear now. Brothers have no mercy."
Abd moved out of her in-laws' house and now rents a mud hut for $500 a month, her dignity obliterated.
"I hear his voice all the time; it's in my ear. Even when I am asleep he is in my dreams," Abd says.
"I couldn't recognize his body, so I think, maybe it wasn't him. Maybe he will return to me."
Not even a pittance
Abd spoke while waiting for an appointment in a lobby at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. She had spent weeks shuffling from one shabby government building to another, waiting in lobbies like this one, staring at moldy carpets and stained walls as she sought what she knew would be a pittance.
But even a pittance was not forthcoming. She ricocheted from clerk to clerk. Each said no in his own way: You're in the wrong place. I can't help you.
Shadha Naji, head of Women for Peace, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization, says activists have tried in vain to establish better benefits and protections for widows.
According to religious and civil law, a widow is supposed to inherit a share of her dead husband's wealth and his house -- the structure, but not necessarily the land.
But Naji says that it is too easy for male relatives to disregard the law when times are so desperate and Iraq's legal institutions so weak.
Increasingly, Naji says, families are forcing a widowed relative to marry a brother or cousin of her late husband -- a traditional requirement that has the added effect of keeping the husband's wealth in the family.
"The male relatives are coming to the woman who has lost her husband and taking everything, even if they are old and married and living in their own houses," Naji says. "Sometimes in rural areas, the families will try to marry her off to others to resolve debts, as if [the women] are a gift to be given away. As more people move into the cities because of the violence, we are seeing these kinds of customs in Baghdad."
Respect for order