Fewer black funeral banners blanket Baghdad

BAGHDAD — "The Dalfiyah family mourns the deceased, Mohammed Nafil Akseer al Dalfi, father of Jassim, Qassim, Hashim and Bassim. The funeral will be held at his house in Habibiya in front of the power supply station."

It reads like an obituary, but in Iraq, only the deaths of the rich or well known appear in the newspaper.

Instead, this announcement, scrawled in white and yellow Arabic on a black cloth banner, hangs at a busy intersection in a popular shopping district in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. It was strung up by a relative of the dead man it honors the day after a double bombing killed nearly two dozen people there.

This is the way almost all Iraqi families announce the deaths of relatives. When a loved one dies, hanging the banners is the first order of business.

If it was a violent death, as many here are, a banner is hung at the scene of the attack. Another is nailed up at the victim's house, another along the main road into his neighborhood and perhaps another at his mosque.

They are always made from black cloth, and the names of the dead are always painted in yellow. The other details — a list of relatives left behind and the place and dates of the funeral — are usually painted in white. Most banners are around four feet long and three feet wide.

It is a custom that existed here long before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but over the last five and a half years, the banners have taken on new meaning. They are an informal measure of security, a way for residents to gauge whether their neighborhood is becoming more or less dangerous.

Between 2005 and 2007, at the height of violence, the banners blanketed Baghdad. They still hang on buildings and blast walls across the capital, but in far fewer numbers.

"There was a time when you could see one almost everywhere you looked," said Mohammed Hussein Abbas, a high school teacher from Baghdad. "The banners were everywhere."

About 350 Iraqi civilians were killed in violence across Iraq last month, half as many as a year ago.

"The walls of the hotel on the corner there used to be covered," said Abbas, pointing. "Of course people are still being killed, but not as many."

As soon as a family receives news of a death, one or two relatives are usually asked to handle the funeral banners, often cousins, nephews or uncles of the deceased.

Most banners are hand-painted by professional sign makers. Each one typically costs about $4; families who bring their own cloth are charged a dollar less.

Banners can be painted and dried while mourners wait, usually in less than half an hour.

"Even though my business has gone down, I am happy," said Ali Kasim Hashim, who earns his living painting funeral banners in a small Baghdad shop he shares with his father, a portrait artist. "Security is the most important thing for Iraq, so I don't mind having fewer customers."

Last year, when there were four bombings on the street where Hashim works, his business boomed. Now he supplements his work by making signs and advertisements for nearby shops.

"Once in a while, if there is an attack close by, lots of people will come for funeral banners," Hashim said. "But usually I only see a few each week."

Most banners are hung within a day of the death. Sometimes families arrive to post them at the scene of an attack before the last bodies are even carried away.

Sometimes they are hung with rope, sometimes with a hammer and nails.

If the deceased was a Muslim, as most here are, his banner will almost certainly include a verse from the Koran. Banners for Christians bear crucifixes.

Sometimes a funeral banner will tell how its honoree died. For a long time in Baghdad, banners rarely displayed causes of death unrelated to violence.

Zadan Khadiyer, who recently came home to the capital after fleeing in fear to Kirkuk, said he is glad to see fewer banners for people killed in fighting.

"For so long all you saw written was, 'This person has been killed in an attack. He is a martyr,'" Khadiyer said. "It's good to see other kinds of death again."

(Corinne Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim and Sahar Issa contributed to this story.)


Blasts kill 20 Shiite worshippers in Iraq on Muslim holiday

A bloody Sunday in Baghdad, in spite of the surge

Once again, Iraq's Ramadan ends in violence