One of the world's greatest marshland habitats - and home of an ancient culture - is beginning to show the first signs of recovery after decades of systematic destruction under Saddam Hussein.
An international scientific assessment of Iraq's drained wetlands, the first since they were partially reflooded after the downfall of Saddam, has found that the giant reeds are growing once more and the water birds and otters are returning. However, ecologists told the American Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday that some parts of the Iraqi marshes may never recover fully because of a build-up of salt in the soil during the time when they had been artificially dammed or drained.
During his 24-year reign, Saddam ordered the draining of the wetlands of southern Iraq in part to punish the Shia inhabitants, the marsh Arabs, who opposed his rule. Satellite images show 93 per cent were destroyed by draining from the mid-1970s and subsequent investigations found many thousands of marsh Arabs had been forcibly removed from their homes or killed.
A team of Iraqi scientists, working with colleagues from Canada and America, will publish details this week of the first scientific assessment of what has happened to the wildlife since the reflooding of some of the marshes, which are fed by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. "This environmental disaster has been compared in scale to the drying up of the Aral Sea in central Asia and to the deforestation of the Amazon," says the study, to be published in the journal Science.
About a fifth of the 15,000 square kilometres of the marshes - which are twice the size of the Florida Everglades - have been reflooded since 2003, mainly as a result of the uncontrolled release of water from the two Iraqi rivers. The scientists, from Iraq's University of Basra and Duke University in North Carolina, found partial recovery in many regions but with some still suffering from high soil salinity.
Curtis Richardson, a wetlands expert at Duke University, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC that in the areas where recovery is going well, more than half of the species of birds have returned.
The Iraqi marshes are an important wintering ground for species migrating between Africa and Siberia. "Right after the war, we were counting birds on one hand or two," Professor Curtis said. "When we went back in February we were talking in the hundreds, and the most recent census shows we're talking in the thousands."
Scientists have also found marsh otters, which had all but disappeared from southern Iraq. But fish populations are still damaged because of the prevalence of a large predatory catfish, which is upsetting the ecological balance.
"The food pyramid is inverted. Not only are the fish small, but the largest fish are catfish which are carnivorous," Professor Curtis said. Although it is unlikely that all the marshes will be returned to their original state, the scientists believe that it is possible to restore most of them.