Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Saddam Destroyed An Eco-System And Its People In The Southern Marshes Of Iraq

 In March 1991, just after the end of the Gulf War, young men and deserting soldiers rose up in almost every major city in southern Iraq. With the government looking so weak after the conclusion of hostilities, rebels believed they had a real chance at overthrowing the regime. Within a month, Saddam Hussein’s forces were able to regain control. Many people ended up fleeing south into the vast southern marshes hoping to escape government reprisals. They never expected Saddam to pursue them, and in the next few years destroy almost the entire marshland area, which has still not recovered to this day.

Iraq’s southern marshes were a historic area, which had been a traditional hideaway for rebels. They were the largest wetlands in the Middle East, and some believed they were where the first human civilization began. The marshes had been a redoubt for bandits, deserting soldiers, and opponents of the government for years. In 1992, there was still an estimated 250,000 displaced people living there who had fled the 1991 revolt. There were also some fighters who would cross back and forth from Iran, and base their Iraqi operations out of the area. Saddam was intent on finishing off these rebels. Not only were they attacking the government, but also Shiites were the largest population group, and could pose a serious threat to Saddam’s regime. Baghdad therefore set about trying to force the population out by destroying the environment.

Saddam launched a brutal campaign against the local inhabitants beginning in 1992. Several divisions consisting of around 40,000 troops were sent in. They built two major canals, along with smaller dykes and dams to divert water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from the marshes. Water was also poisoned, mines laid, and sections of reed forest set afire in a scorched earth policy. By September 1995, the United Nations estimated that 200,000-250,000 people had been forced from the area. Some of those were put into camps, and some were moved to northern Iraq, where ironically, they replaced Kurds that had been forced out of their homes by Saddam as well. These attacks are what helped lead to the southern no fly zone being created by the United States and Britain to give a modicum of support to the people there. Before the campaign, the marshes covered between 15,000–20,000 square kilometers. When it was done, there was only 760 square kilometers left. This was not the first time the government had set upon the marshlands. In 1985, during the Iran-Iraq War sections had been drained because it was the site of major battles, so there was a precedent for what Baghdad did later on. The result was the complete devastation of what some have called the birthplace of civilization, and its native inhabitants, the Madan marsh Arabs who had lived there for centuries. It showed the lengths to which Saddam was willing to go to destroy any internal dissent that challenged his rule.
The southern marshes before and after Saddam's campaign of destruction. Click on image for larger view (GRID-Geneva)
After the 2003 invasion, there has been a concerted effort to bring back the marshes, but the results have been mixed. Immediately after Saddam fell, some locals began tearing down the water barriers built by him. Afterward, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and charities, and the Water Ministry all put together plans to revive the marshes. By 2006, more than half of the marshes were said to have water flowing in them once again, and some of the marsh Arabs had begun to return. In the last several years, some of the shortcomings of these policies have become apparent. First, when the marsh Arabs began destroying Saddam’s dams and dykes, it released toxins that had built up, and ended up poisoning the water and soil. Second, the government has not followed through with all of its promises. For example, it pledged to provide aid and services to the residents, but that has been slow in coming. The marshes are still one of the poorest places in Iraq, the water is polluted and is undrinkable, and there are serious health problems as a result, such as a 50% infant mortality rate early on. Third, the re-flooding has not always been successful. One area observed by the Economist magazine in 2005 had plants growing in it again, but another was lifeless six months after it was re-hydrated. One major reason was the high salt levels, which impeded the growth of greenery. Fourth, not all of the Marsh Arabs wanted to return to their former homes. Since the Saddam offensive, many had become farmers on the outskirts of the marshes, and were unwilling to give up their new livelihoods. Fifth, a professor from Duke University working on one of the reclamation projects believed that only 40% of the original marshlands could be brought back. By 2006 that amount had been achieved. However, in 2007 the effort was faltering and the marshes had receded to 30% of their original size. Finally, in 2008 the entire country began running into water problems. There was not only a drought, but dams built by Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and within the country were cutting off the water flow down Iraq’s major rivers. That began to force some of those who had returned to the marshes to leave once again, and some experts were worried that the lack of water could permanently choke off the area.

Saddam Hussein’s offensive against the southern marshes was the fulfillment of his campaign against those who had risen up against him in 1991. He was so committed to the effort that he sent not only several divisions, but spent several years draining out the marshes destroying one of the truly historical sites in the world, while killing and displacing thousands of people in the process. He was so thorough that years after he was dead and gone, the marshes are still a struggling area. There are still mines, toxins, and high saline levels left over from his time, and those have all hampered efforts to revive the area. Saddam proved incompetent in conducting wars, but was utterly ruthless in suppressing internal dissent, and southern Iraq still bares the scars of his rule.


Associated Press, “Iraq’s southern marshes dry up again amid drought,” Daily Star, 4/16/09

BBC, “Partial recovery of Iraq marshes,” 12/7/06

Economist, “One-third of paradise, The marshes of southern Iraq,” 2/24/05

Human Rights Watch, “Endless Torment, The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath,” June 1992

Iowa State University, “The Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq,” 3/20/03

Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Colorado, Oxford: Westview Press, 2004

Al-Marsume, Chasb, “Iraq’s Marshes: A Stalled Recovery: Despite Ministry’s Claim, Iraq’s Vast Wetlands Wait for Action,” IraqSlogger, 7/31/07

Muir, Jim, “Iraq marshes face grave new threat,” BBC, 2/24/09

North, Andrew, “Iraq’s uncertain marshland revival,” BBC, 6/27/06

Polk, William, Understanding Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006


Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


Real great report.


Joel Wing said...

Thanks Steve I've got something of the history bug right now so I'm trying to write a lot about Saddam and events before 2003.

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