Walking with infirm steps, Ibrahim Youssef Saleh unfurls a scroll of Psalms written on vellum. His hands shake as he gestures to his elderly companions to repeat after him.

"I am like a vulture in a far-off wilderness, or like an owl alone in the desert. I lie awake, lonely as a solitary sparrow on the roof," intones the 76-year-old Saleh, leader of Iraq's Jewish community.Joining him in prayer are about two dozen men, the remnants of what was once among the most prosperous and influential Jewish populations in the Middle East but is now on the verge of extinction.

"Four decades ago at least 500 Jews would gather for the Sabbath prayer in this synagogue," Saleh said.

Now, he knows of only 76 Jews in the entire country.

Saleh confessed to feeling lonely but said he cannot bring himself to join his wife and six children at their home in London. "I want to be buried in the land of my ancestors," he explained.

Of the remaining Iraqi Jews Saleh knows, more than 50 are older than 60, and 10 are in their 40s and unmarried. The rest range from 13 to 35 and all of them would like to emigrate, says Saleh.

He fears their remaining synagogue - in Bataween, once Baghdad's main Jewish neighborhood, with its marble-tiled houses and teak verandas - will soon join some 30 others now in ruins or deserted.

"The last marriage ceremony took place here in 1980, and there will never be another one I'm afraid," he said.

Their rabbi died two years ago, and none of the remaining Jews can perform the liturgy. Saleh and Azra Haroun Darweesh, 66, are the only Jews who know even a little Hebrew. The rest barely comprehend the prayers, though they attend regularly.

Jews first set foot in Iraq when King Nebuchadnezzar captured Je-ru-salem in 7 B.C. and carried thousands of its inhabitants in chains to Babylon.

When the British liberated Iraq from Ottoman Turkish rule in 1920, they took a census that showed 87,000 Jews in a population of about 3 million. That number rose to 117,000 in 1947, according to a government count.

But Saleh maintains these figures are too low, saying at least 350,000 Jews lived in Iraq before their major exodus to Israel in 1950.

Before their emigration, the Jews were Iraq's main traders, goldsmiths and money changers, and made up the bulk of government employees.

Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews. The first musical band formed for Baghdad's nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.

"They had 30 private schools in Baghdad alone, and with their departure Iraq lost its elite of engineers, doctors, musicians and artisans," said Shamel Abdulqadir, a Baghdad University historian.

"It is sad and regrettable to see such a tragic end to one of the most ancient communities in Iraq. . . . Do you know that most of the scriptures were written here, in Babylon?" said Abdulqadir.

Two years after the founding of Israel in 1948, the Iraqi government withdrew citizenship from the Jews and confiscated their property, prompting many to flee to the Jewish state.

Iraqi Jews in Israel now number about 353,000.