Robert Fisk: Their lagoons and reedbeds gone, the Marsh Arabs have no refuge

Related Topics
Back in 1982, in the fleapit shop of one of Baghdad's seedier hotels, I bought a guidebook to Iraq. It was published by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party or ­ as it proclaims on page one ­ by the "State Organisation for Tourism General Establishment for Travel and Tourism Services". And where did this booklet advise me to go? I quote: "And now, off to a unique world, the Marshes, where nature seems to preserve its virgin aspect. Miles and miles of water, with an endless variety of birds, of fish, of plants and reeds and bullrushes, dotted as far as the eye can see with huts, each a little island unto itself ..."</p>The first time I saw the Marshes, just east of the Baghdad-Basra highway, the tourist guide was true to its words. For miles, thousands of reed huts stood on earth and papyrus islands, each inhabited by the descendants of the ancient Sumerians, a time warp of simplicity which, according to old Arabic scripts, may have begun with a devastating flood around AD620. The last time I went there, the women from one Marsh Arab village were prostituting themselves to lorry driversto make money for their impoverished families.</p>Saddam and UN sanctions had seen to that. The Iraqi dictator probably began to drain the ancient marshlands in 1989, just a year before his invasion of Kuwait, and the officially stated explanation ­ "security reasons" ­ could not fail to hide its potential effect. For years, the Marsh Arabs were turning up in Kuwait and Iran with stories of dried up river-beds, of starvation and disease. The man who rebuilt Babylon in his own image was destroying Sumeria.</p>Indeed, it was his war with Iran which first drew Saddam's attention to the vulnerability of the Marsh Arabs ­ and of his own army. It was here that Iran's Revolutionary Guards made their deepest penetration of Iraq in the 1980-88 Gulf war. When the first Iranian tanks crossed the Basra Highway ­ a fact unrevealed by the Iraqi regime for all of eight months ­ the Marsh Arabs were probably doomed. If they were not collaborating with Saddam's enemies, their homelands were. Iraq responded by swamping the lagoons with mustard gas. "In a garden, you use weed-killer to kill weeds," an Iraqi officer said on those fated Marshes.</p>Within a year, the first work began, massive walls and dams of pre-stressed concrete, initially in secret and then ­ once the first satellite pictures revealed what Saddam was doing ­ in public. After the 1991 Gulf War, and Iraq's retreat from Kuwait, American journalists were taken to see the northern ramparts of what was described as an "irrigation" project. They were banned from the crusted lake-beds further south.</p>For it was here that Saddam had been betrayed again. In the aftermath of the "mother of all battles", two great uprisings were staged against the Baathist regime: by the Shias of the south and the Kurds of the north. The Kurds he knew how to deal with. The Marsh Arabs were more difficult. For the insurgents fled back into the wetlands across a triangle of Iraq linking Basra, Nassariya and Amara, returning at night to assault army convoys and police posts. Three years later, deserting soldiers were still robbing night-time motorists on the road to Basra.</p>As usual in the Arab world, everyone knew what was happening and no one said a thing. The British and American pilots flying the pointless southern "no-fly" zone ­ allegedly to protect Iraq's minorities ­ could clearly see the receding waters of the Marsh. The Arab regimes remained silent. Neither Mubarak nor Arafat nor Assad nor Fahd uttered the mildest word of criticism, any more than they did when the Kurds were gassed.</p>The Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya has drawn attention to an incendiary article in the Baath party's Al-Thawra</i> newspaper in April 1991 while Saddam's army was still trying to crush the southern rebellion. The author attacked the Marsh Arabs for their poverty, backwardness and immorality, referring to them as vicious, slatternly and dirty. "One often hears stories of perversion that would make your mouth drop," the paper said.</p>So the Marsh Arabs were bestialised before their culture was destroyed. Saddam had dried up another corner of Iraq, put the people and the birds to flight, made sure that there were no more little islands unto themselves. </p>

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own