BAGHDAD, Iraq – Thousands of posters and billboards dot Baghdad with messages of hope for a city of gloom, where residents largely stay home, afraid of the streets, their pain and grief deepening every day amid unending violence.
"No matter how strong the storm, it will go away in the end," declares the message on one poster, with a picture of a worried young woman clasping a boy to her body, her hand protectively placed over his head, her hair fluttering in the wind.
Hundreds of copies of the poster — and at least one giant one on a billboard — can be seen in many parts of the city, pasted on concrete blast walls and outside buildings.
Even with the attempt to instill hope, the messages, sponsored by the government, are an unusually blunt acknowledgment of just how grave conditions have become.
"You have the power to pull Iraq out of this darkness," declares another billboard overlooking a square. The words are inscribed next to a burning map of Iraq painted in the red, black and white colors of the country's national flag.
The images are in stark contrast to the blitz of upbeat street ads that filled the Iraqi capital in the two years after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003. Those showed optimistic Iraqis casting ballots or engaged in rebuilding. They prescribed democracy as the key to a better life and free elections and a new constitution as the tonic for the ills of society.
During two general elections last year, there was hardly a wall in Baghdad not plastered with candidates' campaign posters.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have long used billboards and posters to get their message out to a public confused by the rapid change that followed Saddam's overthrow. As far back as early 2004, authorities used posters and billboard ads to rally support for the country's nascent security forces in the midst of a growing Sunni insurgency. The U.S. military at times put up posters with congratulatory messages to Iraqis on religious occasions, trying to counter its image as a foreign occupier.
The use of images is a particularly important part of Iraq's public life.
Portraits of key religious figures, including some who died centuries ago, are hung up in homes and streets by Iraq's Shiite majority to display their religious identity and their post-Saddam political empowerment.
But the new crop of billboards and posters in Baghdad reflect the dark mood resulting from a marked worsening of conditions in the Tigris River metropolis, where contemporary reality has made a cruel joke of its former boast of being "the city of peace."
Iraqis, who had adjusted to suicide bombings and other attacks by Sunni insurgents. But for the past six months they've faced a new brand of violence, sectarian killings blamed on Shiite death squads and reprisal slayings by Sunni militants. The violence, in which neighbor is turned against neighbor, is not only just as deadly but perhaps more deeply demoralizing.
"Two years ago, I thought it could not get any worse than this," said barber Qais al-Sharaa. "But it has every day since." In view of his shop was a giant billboard reading "Terrorism has no religion," with the word "terrorism" in red and dripping what looks like blood drops.
The sectarian violence has centered on Baghdad, and joint and massive security operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces have brought little relief.
The city witnessed an average of 36 attacks a day in the past three weeks, an increase of nearly 30 percent over the preceding seven weeks and 60 percent higher than from mid-March to mid-June, according to U.S. military figures.
The sight of what in any other world capital would pass for a nightmare has become the daytime reality of Baghdadis. On any given day, citizens step from their homes to see police trucks loaded with dead, blood-drenched corpses, the beheaded bodies of men snatched from their homes or workplace by gunmen in police uniforms, body parts strewn across a street or dangling from a roof in the wake of a bombing.
Many residents, therefore, are holed up, going out only when necessary. Traffic has thinned, and the once congested streets and sidewalks are nearly vacant by late afternoon, hours before a sunset curfew that has been in place for months.
Baghdad has an unemployment rate of a staggering 30 percent. Power outages are routine and last up to three days at a time. The price of gasoline has risen by as much as 12-fold since Saddam's ouster and is often scarce.
A sign on Mansour street in central Baghdad — once a thriving commercial district that now is frequently hit by bomb blasts — speaks to two of the city's worst problems, security and uncollected garbage.
"Uncollected garbage attracts explosive devices as well as rats," the sign warns. Insurgents often conceal roadside bombs in garbage. Like much of the capital, al-Mansour street is now defined by ubiquitous concrete blast barriers, security checkpoints and barbed wire that has snagged windblown plastic bags.
The owners of one of Baghdad's best known pastry shops, also on al-Mansour street, have given up on replacing the glass on the store's front windows after several blasts shattered it. Al-Khaski's now has concrete wall instead.
"The sight of Baghdad streets remind me of the tragedy in which we live," said Ibrahim Haidar, a 41-year-old father of two who lives in the volatile New Baghdad district. "It makes me feel I could die any second."
Yet, against all odds, the street ads try to offer some hope to a city teetering above an abyss of failed statehood and civil war.
The billboard shows the dark silhouettes of arms stretched skyward as if from a grave in front of a melancholy, dusky sky. The message: "The will of honorable people will enable Iraq to rise."