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Arabs flee Iraq's deadly marshes

MARSH ARABS fleeing their homes in southern Iraq say the region is under heavy bombardment by Saddam Hussein's artillery and large areas of the precious marsh waters are being 'poisoned' by the government.

In a refuge in southern Iran last week, Saleh Mohamed Ali, a former geography teacher, said he had survived three days of continuous bombardment by hiding in a hole under a damaged building, only to discover later that all eight members of his family had been killed. He was the only survivor from a village where around 500 men, women and children had lived. He said shells had rained down at up to 100 per minute.

Refugees say the Iraqi offensive has cut off the heartlands of the marshes between Nasiriyah, Amarah and Basra, preventing food and medical supplies from reaching the people trapped behind the lines.

The Marsh Arabs live in the swamps where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. They have refused government demands to move to dry land. Baghdad, which sees the marshes as a centre for dissidents who aid mujahedin trying to overthrow President Saddam, has offered them pensions and new housing. But they would have to move from the reed beds and waterways where they make their homes on small, artificial islands of mud and papyrus. The plan appears to be a re- run of the forced resettlement of Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to Saleh, 40, daily life for the Marsh Arabs has become 'a dying life'. The inflated cost of food on the black market is creating hundreds of beggars. People are being forced to kill wild birds for food because the suspected 'poisoning' of the marsh waters by the regime means they can no longer fish.

The Iraqi government has been accused of using chemicals in the marshes in the past. Abu Ahmed, a former car mechanic from Basra who has been in a refugee camp near Dezful for a year, said new arrivals to the camp were being carefully checked to prevent infiltration by Iraqi agents carrying poison.

Saleh and Seyyid Kamal had reached Ahwaz, in Iran, three days ago. Also present were six wounded men who had made the perilous journey along the secret waterways that provide a link to the Iranian border, across which medical treatment is available. Three of them were former fishermen recovering from leg and eye injuries caused by shrapnel.

The mixture of anger and despair voiced by these men was at times subsumed by their bitterness towards the West. 'Why is the West keeping silent about us and doing nothing? We are human beings like you,' Seyyid said.

These villagers said it was impossible to estimate how many people were trapped in the marshes. But they said the numbers of the resistance had been greatly swollen by local tribesmen. 'It is impossible to protect ourselves, we have no choice but to fight,' one of the wounded men said. They said only Republican Guard units loyal to President Saddam are trusted to carry out attacks, but that the many Shia army conscripts sympathetic to the resistance often provided them with clean water. 'Without help from the army the people would die,' Saleh said.

The resistance focuses its attacks on the military checkpoints that cut mujahedin supply lines. But movement within the marshes is becoming difficult. Waterways are being blocked and underwater mines laid. Iraqi patrols and ambushes are becoming more frequent, particularly east of the Basra-Amarah highway, to stop people escaping to Iran. The refugees said Iraqi troops used women and children as human shields to prevent mujahedin attacks. According to people in Ahwaz, the regime's attempts to drain the marshes by diverting its waters into 'a third river' could be completed in around six months. Tanks and heavy artillery could then penetrate deep into the in


Dr Hussein Sharistani, a former nuclear physicist who withstood more than 11 years of torture in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, now runs a human rights organisation in Tehran. He is concerned about the worsening situation in the marshes. When asked if he thought events were reaching genocidal proportions, he replied: 'Yes, there is no doubt about that.'

(Photograph omitted)