Video claims to show Iraqi marsh attacks

COMPELLING new evidence has emerged of the Iraqi regime's assault on the Marsh Arabs in the south of the country. An hour- long video smuggled out of the region, which was sent to an Iraqi Shia dissident in London, shows dramatic scenes of villages of reed houses set to the torch by Iraqi troops, according to the anonymous commentator. It is the first visual evidence of what Iraqi dissidents and the United Nations special rapporteur, Max van der Stoel, have been saying: that there is a systematic policy of destroying the life in the marshes.

The marshes preserve a unique culture, which the camera captured as it passed among the reedbeds through the network of waterways. There were signs of destruction everywhere: truncated palm trees, charred reed huts, sagging electricity cables, and brick- built clinics pocked with bullet marks. Whole villages were deserted. In one, a lone water buffalo chomped forlornly.

The villages of Adil, the tribal lands of Bayt Attiya, and the area of Thilith were destroyed. According to one witness, Thilith had had a population of 3,000 until destroyed; first it was attacked by artillery, then the army moved in. On a wall on a partially destroyed building in Ramle, someone had scrawled 'Saddam bastard'.

The video then showed an area near Nasiriyah, which was still intact, but where many villagers complained of lack of food and medicines. Some said they had been attacked from the air, an assertion which would reinforce the need for a no-fly zone over the region. At Fartus, villagers said their homes had been shelled by artillery. They said they were short of tea, coffee and flour.

The commentator asked some young men punting a dug-out in the shallow channels why they were leaving. 'Nobody expelled us,' they explained. 'But we had to escape for our lives.'

Another group from the Hayshawi tribe said they were taking the women away for safety from the bombardments. One related how his neighbour's daughter had been killed by shelling which came from the direction of Silaam. A woman who gave her name as Khairiya, from the Shahalbi tribe, said shells and rockets landed continuously at night, and she wanted to escape.

It was not clear how recent the film was, although some scenes appeared to have been recorded at the end of May. In London, Iraqi opposition spokesmen held a press conference to stress that no Iraqi exile group believed that the establishment of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq would lead to fragmentation of the country into three parts: Kurdish north, Sunni Arab centre and Shia Arab south.

'The Shia not only believe in a unitary state,' explained Laith Kubba, a prominent Shia intellectual in London, 'they are the only guarantor of it.'

The Shia make up over half Iraq's population of 18 million. But they have always had minority status in a regime dominated by the Sunni elite.

He said that the reservations of Arab states about the no-fly zone had less to do with fears about the fragmentation of the state, and more to do with internal dissent from their own Shia populations.

Another dissident, Ahmad Chalabi, said he and his colleagues 'supported the idea of a no-fly zone in southern Iraq' and wished to 'dispel the idea that this represents a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq'. He said, 'None of us wants to see Iraq fragmented. All of us want to see it united, but united under a democratic regime.'

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