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

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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>

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