BAGHDAD - She is a small woman with bright eyes and jet-black hair swept back and tied in a bun. She is embarrassed by her poor teeth, but smiles easily with strangers as well as old friends. She lives in poverty, and is nearly all that is left of Iraq's once-robust Jewish community.
It is a responsibility Samira Yacoub, 50, wears lightly. She is unafraid to draw attention to a handful of Iraqi Jews who have craved anonymity and isolation for generations. In a country buffeted by competing religious sects vying for position in a new government, Yacoub declares Iraq's Jews - all 35 of them - should not be left out.
"The Americans should give us a voice," Yacoub says. "I am an Iraqi and I should be able to enjoy the rights of all Iraqis."
The subject of Iraq's depleted Jewish community is a delicate issue in the aftermath of a war many Iraqis believe was waged in the interests of their nemesis, Israel. In Iraq's newly liberated press, news articles report rumors of Zionist groups conspiring to steal the country's oil and purchase blocks of real estate.
A colony of foreign Jews was said to be staying at Baghdad's Ekal Hotel, which emptied out two weeks ago after security officers warned that an attack on it was imminent; in fact, according to Ekal manager Anan Jamil, the guests were officials from DynaCorp, a US company hired by the State Department to train Iraq's fledgling police department.
Yacoub makes an unlikely mouthpiece for her people. She has been effectively disowned by the remnants of Iraq's Jewish establishment because she married a Muslim and converted to Islam, though she divorced her husband years ago. Many Jews married outside the faith under Saddam Hussein's reign, often as a means of protection, and many others assumed Muslim names.
"Samira does not speak for the Iraqi Jews," says Emad Levy, Iraq's only rabbi. "She is not one of us."
Levy, like many of Iraq's younger Jews, says he will leave Iraq as soon as he can sell his home and car. He is responsible for his 82-year-old father and ailing uncle and hopes to emigrate to Israel.
"I have no future here," says Levy, who keeps passages of the Koran rolled up in a fountain pen, a habit nurtured under Hussein's regime to blend in. "I am responsible for an old man and if I stay here I'll grow old with no wife and no children to take care of me."
Yacoub plans to stay. She says she never lost her Jewish identity and prays in the synagogue in Betaween, a neglected district in Baghdad where most of the few remaining Jews live among Muslims and a smattering of Christians. It is Iraq's last functioning synagogue, down from the 56 that flourished a half-century ago.
"I don't distinguish between Jews, Christians, and Muslims," she says. "We all come from the same roots."
The US officials managing the occupation of Iraq have not said whom they will appoint to the committees now being formed to build an interim government and write a constitution. Under the Iraqi monarchy that was overthrown in 1958, the country had nearly a half million Jews, many of whom were prominent in politics as well as businesses; the country's first finance minister was Jewish and Jews were a vital part of Iraq's large and prosperous middle class.
That changed in the late 1960s with a series of coups that climaxed with Hussein's rise to power. Official harassment of Jews turned to persecution in 1969 when the government arrested seven of them as alleged Israeli spies. They were hanged in Baghdad's Liberation Square, their bodies left dangling for days.
Within a decade, Iraq's Jewish population - a pillar of Iraqi society since King Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem in the sixth century BC and evicted many of its inhabitants to Babylon - had all but vanished. Those who remained were tolerated but confined to the margins of Iraq's state-dominated economy. Many survived on the patronage of a small endowment allowed the Jews under Hussein - and by keeping a low profile.
"Saddam once referred in a speech to 'Zionist Jews,' " said Nidal, 36, who despite Hussein's ouster prefers not to give her last name. "Then people started calling me a Zionist while I shopped in the market. I didn't respond."
Until the war, Yacoub lived on a monthly transfer of $50 from her mother, who emigrated to the Netherlands 10 years ago. But the war disrupted communications, and she has received nothing since.
Yacoub lives in a tiny room next to an old synagogue where her family once worshiped. She sleeps on a bed with a cast-iron frame and often tucks leather strips printed with passages from the Torah under her pillow. They are printed in Hebrew, a language she does not understand.
"I keep it with me to ward off the evil eye," she says. "My son had nightmares recently so I put these under his pillow and they went away."
The old synagogue, stately and austere, is now a furniture factory. It has a gabled, crenelated roof line and is entombed inside a 10-foot high wall that appears to have been hastily built. As a girl, Yacoub attended weddings, celebrations of holy days and circumcisions, when guests would drink wine and feast on rakak, an unleavened bread.
Asked why the Jews left, Yacoub shrugs. "They all had their reasons," she says. "But when they left they took so much of Iraq with them."
Inside the synagogue, Samira is greeted warmly by furniture makers Ali and Hassan. It is dark - the electricity has just gone off, a common occurrence in postwar Iraq - and the air is acrid with the smell of turpentine. Where a congregation once prayed there are table saws and work benches.
Yacoub shuffles her way through stacks of unfinished chairs and loveseats and points to a framed, hand-printed scroll with Hebrew letters woven around a menorah. It proclaims God as the God of Israel and of the world, and is all that remains of a once-vibrant house of worship.
As Yacoub departs, she is teased by Ali and Hassan, who joke they will send her to Israel if she doesn't behave. Yacoub says she will remain in Iraq, to greet any Jews who return.
"Maybe the Jews will come back," she says. "It is their right. And I do hope they come."