Iraqi Women Take On Roles Of Dead or Missing Husbands
For One Mother, Bedside AK-47 Signified Change

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 22 -- Sabriyah Hilal Abadi began sleeping with a loaded AK-47 by her bed shortly after the war began.

It was a comforting possession for a woman who had lost her home, her husband and, last weekend, a room in a dilapidated building she shared with 27 squatter families, most headed by women.

The mother of four fought mightily to stay in the sparse, two-story building in the Zayouna neighborhood of Baghdad that once belonged to Hussein's Baath Party, but soldiers forced her out.

Iraq's government is intent on proving it can enforce the law. But in its determination to rid the party building of its squatters, the women say, the government has plunged them deeper into homelessness and may have pushed others toward violence.

Thousands of Iraqi women have in recent years embraced new roles as violence has claimed their men. For Abadi, 43, the turning point came when she accepted the powerful assault rifle from friends concerned about her welfare.

"Before the invasion -- never," said Abadi, who oscillated between rage and sadness during three interviews. Speaking about the army, she waggled her finger. Speaking about her son in college, she looked dismal. Speaking about her old house, she began to weep.

Times have changed, she said. "The women now take on the responsibilities of men and women."

Nearly 1 million women in Iraq are widows or divorcees, or their husbands are missing, according to Samira al-Mosawi, a Shiite member of parliament who heads the women's affairs committee. She said the number, an estimate reached by several government agencies, includes women who became widows during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s.

Mosawi said approximately 86,000 widows are receiving about $40 a month from the government. Aid organizations and government agencies are unable to help more widows because of a lack of funds and the challenges of doing social work in volatile neighborhoods.

"Frankly speaking, there's not much attention paid to the social issues in the country," Mosawi said in an interview. "Attention goes to security and defense."

Before U.S. troops strode into Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Abadi worked as a seamstress to complement the earnings of her husband, who worked at a government factory.

She was optimistic during the days after the invasion. Her impressions of Americans, shaped largely by a news story she saw on television, gave her hope. The story was about an hours-long effort to rescue a cat stuck in a sewage pipe.

"If those people are so good to the animals," she said, "I was expecting good things."

But the invasion and its aftermath brought more troubles than blessings.

When the family's rent rose from about $20 a month to more than $80, Abadi moved into the building that had housed Saddam Hussein's Baath Party after the structure had been looted and set ablaze.

"During Saddam's time, no one had a right to raise rent on the people," she said. "After the invasion, the rules were gone."

The building had no windows or doors, she said. Inside she found mounds of debris and ashes. "It took me one day just to clear a path so I could sleep," she said.

Soon, 27 other Shiite families joined her, each occupying a small room. They got the electricity running and the water flowing and began operating like an extended family that included 43 children. Only eight of the families were led by men.

After the invasion, crime became rampant in Baghdad. Then sectarian violence flared. Mass bombings became routine. Kidnappings occurred daily.

Abadi's husband and a friend were taken in July 2005.

"They entered an area they weren't supposed to enter," she said, sounding numb. "Armed men took them with their car."

Betoul Jawad, 45, lost her husband in July 2006. Men called her and asked for prepaid phone cards as a condition to let her speak to her husband. She bought the cards but did not get him on the line. The men stopped calling.

"We lost contact with him," she said. "We don't know anything."

A third woman interrupted to provide the name of her husband. "Can you run his name through the computer?" she asked.

The war in Iraq has displaced about 2.7 million residents, according to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization. Hundreds have occupied government buildings, a situation Iraqi officials say is untenable.

The campaign to evict squatters from these buildings was one of the cornerstones of a plan launched last year to improve security.

Brig. Gen. Abdullah Abdul Karim Abdul Sattar, commander of the Iraqi army brigade responsible for Zayouna, said squatters have brought crime to neighborhoods. He said many rent out their own houses in other parts of the city.

"Every government building should be empty from intruders," he said in an interview in his office, which is decorated with several photographs of him with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "Many of these families have houses."

The general said a member of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, lived in the building in Zayouna. Iraq's government, controlled by political parties at odds with Sadr's, has cracked down on the militia in recent weeks.

Abadi acknowledged that the Mahdi Army member was a resident and said that she often urged him to leave the militia.

Early this month, the residents were given two weeks to abandon the building. Initially, Abadi was defiant. "I will stay inside and have them destroy the building over my head," she said at the time.

If they were forced out, she said, her son Muqdam, 19, an engineering student, might be forced to drop out of college to help support the family.

"This is how you push young men to become terrorists," she said angrily, as her son stood quietly nearby, clicking on a cellphone, eyes downcast.

The women in the building should lead the fight, Abadi decided. Shortly after the soldiers gave them an ultimatum, she packed the women into a handful of taxis and traveled to the military base where Abdul Sattar works.

Soldiers at a checkpoint told the women the general was not inside. The women assumed he was lying and walked toward the building.

"Shots were fired in the air," Abadi said.

Instead of turning back, the women ran toward the base until soldiers pulled them away. As they left, dejected, she noticed that one of the soldiers was weeping.

Abdul Sattar confirmed Abadi's account but denied that his men had fired their weapons.

Days later, soldiers placed waist-high yellow cement blocks around the former Baath Party building. They cut off the power and knifed the water tanks, residents said.

Abadi never used her AK-47 to defend her building. Iraqi soldiers confiscated it.

She later noted, in a moment of levity, that she had fired it only once, when a stray cat sneaked into her room at night, making her think an intruder had broken in.

Days after the yellow blocks were laid, a thicker wall was built around them and concertina wire was fixed on the roof. Soldiers told the residents that the men would be arrested if they didn't leave, Abadi said.

The Mahdi Army member in the building warned soldiers the militia would retaliate, Abdul Sattar said.

The residents decided that the men should leave, at least temporarily, thinking that the women might be better suited to stave off eviction.

But soldiers rolled in on Friday and took over the building. One by one, the families left. Some called relatives and asked for shelter.

Abadi moved in with her brother and his wife in Amin district, in eastern Baghdad, where they share a room. She is looking for a new place to stay. Amin is far more dangerous than Zayouna, she said, and her two sons now have longer commutes to class.

An Iraqi army convoy driving toward the former Baath Party building was attacked with a roadside bomb over the weekend, Abdul Sattar said. He said it had probably been placed in retaliation for the eviction.

When Abadi heard about the bomb, she asked whether it had killed anyone. "Thank God," she said, upon learning that no soldiers had been hurt. "They follow orders. They have not done anything wrong."

Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.

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