BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Every week, letters from Iraqi widows spill across Samira al-Moussawi's desk. One wrote to ask whether she should spend what scant money she gets on her infant or on school books for her older son.
The member of parliament and head of a parliamentary women's committee is at her wits' end as to how to answer the desperate pleas from what could be as many as one to two million women.
Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq, but the number of women left without breadwinners is mounting, and with only a fraction of them receiving financial support from the government, officials fear the consequences could be explosive.
"What shall the widow do, deviate from what is right?" Moussawi said. "Terrorist groups exploit the destitute."
No-one can give an exact figure for the number of widows left by the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War and in sectarian bloodshed since the 2003 invasion.
Moussawi, basing her estimate on a Ministry of Planning report from mid-2007, put the number of divorcees and widows close to 1 million of a total of 8.5 million women aged between 15 and 80.
Narmeen Othman, Iraq's acting minister for women's affairs, put the number as high as 2 million in a country of 27 million people.
Whatever their number, both parliamentarians say the women who have lost male family members since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are increasingly lacking the means to provide for themselves.
As conservative interpretations of Islam gain ground in Iraq, the opportunities for solitary women to play a role in the economy are shrinking. Many, especially those in poorer areas, are forced to stay at home by conservative Muslim families, rather than go out to work to support themselves.
"The number (of widows) is increasing day after day, it is becoming a time bomb, especially because many of them are still young," Othman told Reuters. "They become prisoners at home."
Even during Saddam's rule, Moussawi said, widows were paid a monthly salary and given land and a car, which helped to placate many, despite Saddam's brutality. He also rewarded members of the military who married widows. That stopped when he was overthrown.
Sisters Um Baqir and Um Mohammed both lost their husbands in the violence, but almost a decade apart.
Um Baqir was thrown out of her husband's parents' home a week after gunmen killed him at a fake checkpoint in southern Baghdad last March.
Um Mohammed's husband, a Shi'ite, was executed in 1999, one of many thousands more killed during Saddam's reign for opposing his rule.
Each sister has four children they are trying to raise in the same tiny house in Baghdad's sprawling Shi'ite slum district of Sadr City, with precious little support from their families and even less from the government.
"I depend on my sister," said Um Baqir. "My eldest daughter is in the final year of primary school. I don't want her to quit but it is getting too expensive. I can't afford it," she said, breaking down.
Of Iraq's widows, only 84,000 receive government support from the Ministry of Labour and Social Support -- between 50,000 and 120,000 Iraqi dinars -- $40-$95 -- a month.
"This is an analgesic ... not a solution," Moussawi said. Her committee has presented a draft law to parliament that would provide women without breadwinners with housing, to prevent them from resorting to desperate measures such as prostitution or from being exploited by militants.
Pleas to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government have fallen on deaf ears: the draft bill has yet to be voted on, despite being read in parliament twice.
"They are busy with politics and the security situation and forget about other things," Moussawi said.
Labour and Social Affairs Minister Mahmoud al-Sheikh Radhi agreed that his ministry paid widows too little.
"The sum is not enough but we pay what is being allocated to us, this is what is in the government's budget," he said.
A report by aid groups found that 43 percent of Iraqis lived in "absolute poverty." Four million people needed food assistance and only one in three children under five had access to safe drinking water.
Many widows who seek help find the government bureaucracy impenetrable.
Um Aathraa, a 38-year-old mother of three, sells vegetables and makes just enough to cover her bus fare to and from the market. She received an allowance for three months but it suddenly stopped because of a problem with her paperwork.
Illiterate, but determined to put her daughters through school, she has spent the past five months trying to find out why the payment stopped and to have it restored.
"I have to pay the rent, I have to feed my daughters. I depend on charity," Um Aathraa told Reuters.
Some humanitarian organizations help widows and orphans where they can. One, Al-Musbah, takes in one child from each family and gives them a small allowance as well as clothing and books, provided they promise to stay in school.
"We are helping 105 families," said Al-Musbah's Abu Amjad as Hussein, a 12-year-old orphan, tried on shoes spilling from two big boxes in a corner of his Sadr City office.
One of the women Al-Musbah is helping, Um-Hassan, lost her husband, 9-year-old son and brother to a mortar round in Sadr City in 2004. Al-Musbah gives her 30,000 dinars a month for 11-year-old Hassan, the eldest of her three sons.
"Life is difficult," she sobbed as Hassan did his homework. "I want my children to keep going to school, I do not want them to lose their future. I do what I can, the rest (depends) on God."
Writing by Paul Tait; editing by Sara Ledwith