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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Halima Dakhil lost her husband in the sectarian slaughter that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and now spends her days tearful and scared, knowing her $250 monthly wage won't pay the rent and feed five children.
One of an estimated 2 million women who are primary breadwinners in Iraq, Dakhil is but one face of the humanitarian crisis left behind as U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq nearly nine years after toppling dictator Saddam Hussein.
Rent takes $210 of her monthly earning as a cleaner in a medical clinic. She depends mainly on the kindness of neighbors and other donors to feed her family.
"When my husband was killed in 2006, my youngest child, Ridha, was only a toddler," said Dakhil, wiping away her tears with her abaya, as Ridha stood by her side.
"I took on the role of both mother and father. I support them and pay the rent. The rent is destroying me."
Dakhil said militants beheaded her husband, along with his brother and nephew, as they traveled to sell a car and buy another in Diyala province, a center of ethnic and sectarian strife east of Baghdad.
In a cruel irony, Dakhil's spouse, a Sunni, was killed by Sunni militants who thought he was a Shi'ite because his ID badge was issued in the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, she said.
Dakhil, herself a Shi'ite, she was displaced shortly after her husband's death from their Sunni area in northern Baghdad to
Sadr City, with no money, no furniture and no family support.
As Iraq emerges from nearly nine years of what many here think of as an occupation by U.S. forces, and the decades of Saddam's reign before, it faces an uphill battle to help the poor, the wounded, the widowed and others scarred by war.
"I wish the war never happened and my husband was still alive. What is his fault? What is the fault of the innocent people?" said Dakhil, who is raising four boys and a girl.
Tens of thousands of men -- soldiers, police, insurgent fighters and civilians -- have died in bombings, tit-for-tat sectarian slaughter and other violence during a war that has killed more than 100,000 Iraqis, by some estimates.
Minister of Women's Affairs Ibtihal Gasid al-Zaidi estimates there may be 2 million women breadwinners in Iraq, most of them widows of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the sectarian conflict that followed, the first Gulf war or the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
The humanitarian group Relief International estimates there may be 1.5 million widows, nearly 10 percent of the female population. The International Committee of the Red Cross said there are more than 1 million women leading households in Iraq.
"The ICRC sees women-headed households as among the most vulnerable in Iraq today," the group said.
Zaidi said 23 percent of oil-rich Iraq's estimated 30 million people, around 7 million, live under the poverty line and more than half are women.
Many widows struggle with the realities of their new lives; raising children alone, with little money or family support.
"The woman's suffering is huge in these difficult circumstances because she is the father, the mother, the care-giver and the breadwinner," Zaidi said. "She is taking huge responsibility, inside and outside the home. We are trying to help her as much as we can."
During Saddam's reign, widows were paid a monthly benefit and were given land and a car, which helped to placate many. He also rewarded members of the military who married widows.
Those benefits stopped when he was toppled.
In 2009, a new law was passed to help victims of war and their relatives, and a state-run compensation committee to help those hurt by militant attacks began its work in July.
Standard compensation includes 5 million Iraqi dinars ($4,275) for a government worker who is killed and 3.75 mln dinars ($3,200) for non-government worker, along with land and a monthly pension, in addition to social security benefits.
So far the committee has given out 55 billion dinars ($47 million). Land has been distributed in some provinces but not in Baghdad yet, said Hazem al-Haidari, the head of the committee.
A widow's monthly social security is 100,000 Iraqi dinar($85). Each child receives 15,000 ID ($13).
"I agree it is little. But there is a real plan to increase these benefits," Zaidi said.
Iraqi women say registering for government pensions is a bureaucratic nightmare due to corrupt workers who demand money to complete the paperwork.
One divorcee said she spent almost a year registering and when she was about to finish the process the pension office told her that her file had been lost. She gave up.
The government has allocated $1.2 billion a year to a plan to reduce the poverty level to 16 percent by 2014, said Hassan al-Zubaidi, a professor at Kufa University in Najaf and one of the plan's authors.
The plan sets the poverty line at 77,000 ID ($66) a month; a line to which too many Iraqis are dangerously close.
"Most of (the people) are close to the 77,000 ID, which means with any security and economic crisis, many people will be under the poverty line," Zubaidi said.
The 75-square-meter home where Dakhil is raising her five children has no glass in the windows. A broken air cooler sits in the front yard.
"My children went to bed without dinner the other night," she said. "I want compensation from the government. I want them to build us a house."
In a camp near the Iraqi capital's Sadr City slum, the plight of widows is slightly better than Dakhil's. The Baghdad Provincial Council distributed 150 caravans to displaced families rent-free.
Ibn Sina, a non-governmental organization, helps widows find jobs. The group bought one a sewing machine and another a refrigerator and food supplies so they could earning a living.
Kadhmiya Mohammed, 35, a mother of five, sells used household goods at the camp, but barely meets the needs of her family. Her husband disappeared in 2005 and despite searching hospitals and prisons she was unable to find any trace of him.
He was declared dead by a court two years ago.
"My husband went (missing) but I have children. Who should raise them?" she said. "Our conditions are tragic. For how long shall we stay like this?"
Editing by Jim Loney and Sonya Hepinstall