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In Iraq, funeral banners make a statement against U.S. forces

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The banners—black with yellow and white lettering—can't be missed. They hang throughout Baghdad, covering walls at the busiest traffic circles, draping across fences and even hanging on street vendors' carts. Their messages are simple:

"Maysam Salaah Abd al Rasool Mashkoor, a university student, was killed in the U.S. bombing."

"Kalil Abrahim al Saidy, a lawyer, died from burns after American troops fired a missile at his car."

"I see this and it makes me angry. It makes me sad," said taxi driver Qess Muhammed Kalf, 33, gesturing at a banner in central Baghdad. "It makes every honest Iraqi man angry and sad because this man was killed at the hands of the invaders. I think there will be more banners because the Iraqis will call for a jihad against the American Army (and Iraqis will die). There will be massacres."

These are funeral banners, and the Iraqis use them to announce the deaths of loved ones. They include family ties and funeral information. In use before the war, they're now more important than ever. There are no newspaper obituaries, long-distance travel to notify friends and relatives is marred by checkpoints and a curfew, and telephone service hasn't been restored. This is how families spread the news of death.

But the banners have taken on a political tone in the last few months. Iraqis say the banners rarely included details about the cause of death until coalition forces caused those deaths. Now, although many of the people they commemorate have been gone for months, the banners still hang, reminding passers-by that the soldiers occupying their city have Iraqi blood on their hands.

"It's a way to go against the Americans," said Hussain Noori, a University of Baghdad psychology professor. "When you see more than one person killed by Americans, it will send the message, `These guys are killing everybody and they might get me next, so I'd better do something.'''

Some of the more recent banners recall the crimes of Saddam Hussein's government. One memorializes 24 "martyrs" whose bodies were found recently in mass graves. "Died at the hands of Saddam Hussein" is how they are remembered. They greatly outnumber the dead at coalition hands.

But Saddam is gone, untouchable, while the U.S. military is visibly present in this city of 6 million people. As the occupation drags on and the city continues to lack basic services such as electricity and water, these small reminders of what is seen as American wrongdoing fuel anger.

That's exactly what Maysam Mashkoor's family wants.

"It was important, because of our hatred of the Americans. We wrote that for all people to see and to know what happened to our Maysam," said her mother, Hannan al Hafeth.

When the bombing of Baghdad began, Maysam, her parents and five siblings fled to a nearby suburb. On April 6, they were moving to another suburb in a two-car convoy when a bomb fell nearby. Shrapnel pierced the first car, and one piece sheared off the left side of Maysam's head.

"We are finished," al Hafeth said of her family. Her 9-year-old son complains of chest pains. Her 3-year-old boy can talk of nothing but Maysam, the bomb and the blood.

"She had so much happiness," al Hafeth said of her daughter, using her traditional black mourning dress to wipe her eyes. "She was so pretty, so confident. She thought she'd be something big, and now she is something big. She is a martyr."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BANNERS