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10/26/03 - IRAQ’S MARSH ARABS - 2003-10-27

Iraq is slowly emerging from decades of misrule. Today, the Iraqi people are meeting hardships and challenges as they set out on the path to democracy. The monuments built by the Saddam Hussein regime are being removed, and says President George W. Bush, “not only his statues”:

“The true monuments of his rule and his character –- the torture chambers, and the rape rooms, and the prison cells for innocent children –- are closed. And as we discover the killing fields and mass graves of Iraq, the true scale of Saddam’s cruelty is being revealed.”

What Saddam Hussein tried to destroy may take years to rebuild. This includes a portion of Iraq where for the first time since 1991, the waters of the Euphrates River are once again flowing. The water nourishes the land of the Madan, or Marsh Arabs, of southern Iraq. Saddam Hussein went to great lengths to build canals and drain the waters in order to punish the Marsh Arabs after the Shia uprisings in the early 1990s.

The marshlands, which had once covered fifteen-to twenty-thousand square kilometers, now extend to less than two-thousand. And as a Human Rights Watch report points out, over a fifteen-year period, the Iraqi regime destroyed villages and forcibly removed Marsh Arabs from their homes. Many of them were summarily executed. Today as few as forty-thousand out of two-hundred-fifty thousand remain.

Before Saddam Hussein began his campaign of annihilation, the marshes were the largest wetlands in the Middle East. For five-thousand years, the Marsh Arabs lived in these wetlands. Their lives were tied to the environment, to hunting and fishing, and the cultivation of rice and barley. Now, with U.S. help, the marshes are being rejuvenated.

In April, shortly after the Saddam Hussein regime was overthrown, Ali Shaheen, an Iraqi civil engineer, opened floodgates to begin the region’s restoration. “I felt I needed to do whatever I could to restore what Saddam destroyed,” says Mr. Shaheen. “Drying the marshes was a crime.”