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

Share
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

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

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Texas Gov. Rick Perry might try to run for president again in 2016  

Rick Perry could end up in jail for the rest of his life — so why does he look so smug?

David Usborne
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape