Iraqi drainage scheme cripples Marsh Arabs: Saddam Hussein's attempts to strangle the Shias' insurrection have led him to an engineering assault on their habitat, writes Robert Fisk

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The Independent Online
DESPITE the allied air exclusion zone over southern Iraq, Saddam Hussein's massive engineering works to destroy the rebellious Shia Muslim villages of Iraq's southern marshes appear to be more than two-thirds complete, with a series of dams, hundreds of miles in length, already constructed to drain the waters of the Euphrates river away from thousands of square miles of land.

Using what they claim are captured Iraqi government engineering maps, Shia opposition sources in Beirut have provided the most detailed survey yet available of the extent of Saddam's strangulation of the Shia insurrection, including precise measurements of the dams - some of them 105ft thick - which has cut off more than 40 rivers in one engineering operation alone. Many of the dams, it is now clear, were constructed during the Iran-Iraq war and have been restored for the specific purpose of depriving Iraq's own Shia population of water.

Of a total of five engineering projects, three have been completed and the remaining two - in the provinces of Nasiriyah, al-Amarah and Basra - are now under way, one of them involving the construction of a huge rampart of earth along the east bank of the Euphrates. According to documents released by the Iraqi opposition, four Baghdad government ministries are now involved in the operations: those of Petroleum; Manufacturing and Military Production; Housing and Industry; and Agriculture and Immigration.

The most ambitious engineering work, which has now been finished, was the construction of dykes along seven rivers feeding the marshes of al-Amarah - al-Wadiya, al-Adl, al-Kifah, al-Sharmakiyah, the Masbah, the Haddam and the Umm Jaddi - to drain water from the towns of al-Maimuna, al-Salam, al-Adl and al-Majarr al-Kabir. Two 18ft-high dams have also been completed north of al-Amarah marshes.

According to the papers produced by the Iraqi opposition in Beirut, which is supported by similar groups in Damascus and partly funded by Iran, the Iraqi authorities have constructed a 'meeting' of rivers in the province of Nasiriyah which channels the waters of the Euphrates to the Khor Abdullah waterway - whose mouth lies under United Nations control on the Kuwaiti border - without passing any longer through the marshes.

This project alone is said to be drying up the Saleh, Anter, Khaiera and Kharfiyya rivers, depriving thousands of Shia villagers of irrigation and drinking water.

The Baghdad project has involved military and civil construction engineers on a fourth, still uncompleted, operation to drain the Hammar marshes. Iraqi troops and engineers used a 15-mile stretch of dyke originally built during the Iran-Iraq war - to prevent Iranian revolutionary guards using boats to attack the Iraqi front line - as a base for a new dam.

The latest, and apparently final, stage of the plan to cut off the Shia marsh rebels involves a dyke well over 30 miles long which cuts through the villages of al-Abra, Umm az-Zahdi, al-Uwaili and al-Dob. The last part of this dyke has been named 'Dyke Number 712' by the Iraqi government and will dry out an area of nearly 1,500sq kilometres (580sq miles).

The Iraqi opposition documents give precise map references for many of the new dams, most of which must be clearly visible to the allied fighter-bombers which patrol the skies over southern Iraq in order to 'protect' Shia villagers, but which seem powerless to prevent President Saddam's 'final solution' for the marsh rebels.

(Photograph and map omitted)