Leading Article: UN protection for the Marsh Arabs

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The Independent Online
THE Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday added his voice to the growing chorus of those who believe that something must be done to save the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq from extinction at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Prince Charles spoke out recently, saying that the plight of these ancient people had tormented him for more than a year. A team of inspectors from the United Nations is investigating evidence that the Baghdad regime has employed chemical weapons against them. Almost every week brings new testimony of Iraqi efforts to drain the marshes, denude them of inhabitants and to slaughter or deport all those deemed enemies of the state.

Dwelling at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a primitive arcadia evoked in writings by Wilfred Thesiger and Gavin Maxwell, the Marsh Arabs twice found their lives wrecked by war; first the Iraq and Iran conflict, then the uprising against Saddam in the wake of his Kuwaiti debacle.

As the world's attention slipped elsewhere, the boldness of Saddam and his henchmen increased. Unable or unwilling to violate the northern safe havens created by the allies for the Kurds, the dictatorship has turned its vengeance upon the Shia Muslims of its southern provinces. A little-noticed report by UN truce observers along the Iraq-Kuwait border speaks of routine violations even in the demilitarised zone, including unpunished overflights by military aircraft. Behind the lines the forces of Ali Hassan Al-Majid - the Ba'athist Heydrich who has been entrusted with 'restoring order' - run brutally amok.

There is no doubt that Iraq's actions put it in breach of the spirit of existing UN resolutions requiring the regime to cease actions likely to provoke a breach of the regional peace, not least because it risks turning this wretched example of 'ethnic cleansing' into a proxy conflict with Iran. Baghdad therefore deserves further chastisement. A fresh resolution from the Security Council is required. It should forbid all flights by any fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, military or civilian, in a broadly designated zone of southern Iraq. This would make Saddam Hussein aware that a price will be exacted for further misdeeds and abolish any possible ambiguity about the use of air transport. The marshes should be declared a UN-protected area and Iraq should be notified that any offensive concentration of military vehicles shall be liable to be destroyed from the air. Earthmoving and drainage operations are to cease forthwith under the threat of similar reprisal.

What is good for the Kurds, armed rebels against the regime, should be good for the Marsh Arabs, who are, by and large, its pathetic victims. Sanctions, meanwhile, must stay tight while Iraq persists in its crimes.