Iraqi Marsh Arabs Discuss Future of Wetlands
The founding conference of the Maysan Marsh Arab Council marked the first
time that Iraq's Marsh Arabs publicly expressed their wishes and concerns for
the future of their marshland environment.
According to a report from the Maysan Province office of the Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA), several hundred marshland residents gathered in the
city of Amarah, Iraq, on March 20 to meet with scientific experts and government
officials regarding projects to restore portions of Iraq's wetlands.
"If you are going to talk about the marshes, you must talk about the people, the
villages there," said Iraqi Governing Council member Abdul Karim Al Muhammadawi.
Al Muhammadawi earned the moniker "Prince of the Marshes" for his role in
leading the resistance against Saddam Hussein's regime within Iraq's southern
provinces for 17 years.
The conference provided a forum for marshland residents to discuss numerous
issues surrounding proposed plans to re-flood parts of the vast network of
wetlands along the Tigris River basin in southern Iraq. These included not only
environmental issues but also concerns regarding health, education and
agricultural and cultural matters relevant to the historically marginalized
Marsh Arab population.
According to the CPA report, conference participants discussed strategies for
managing returning refugee populations, the allocation of arable land and the
provision of basic utilities, health care and education.
In recent testimony before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) officials studying the feasibility of marshland restoration
observed that the residents "ask for social services that have never been
accessible to them in the past but ought to be expected of any representative
civil society in the future."
The Maysan Conference marked the first opportunity for local marsh residents to
articulate these wishes in an official public forum. According to the CPA
report, the purpose of the newly founded Marsh Arab Council is "to provide a
voice for the Marsh Arabs of Maysan so their interests and concerns will be
factored into national and international plans that affect the marshes."
The report indicated that this was only the first in a series of meetings aimed
at bringing local residents into the dialogue regarding the future of their
Most of the marshlands were drained by the former regime during the 1990s in
order to deprive opposition Shi'a forces of safe havens. Azzam Alwash, manager
of the Iraq Foundation's New Eden project, said in recent hearings before the
U.S. Congress, "In a few short years, Saddam drained them to allow access for
his tanks to establish control in the area. After they were dried, the marshes
were burned and villages were destroyed."
Alwash estimated that as many as 300,000 residents died or fled their homes
during the period.
Although many experts feared that the damage to the soil, flora and fauna of the
region might be irreversible, more recent USAID studies of re-flooded areas have
provided encouraging evidence that the wetlands can be partially restored.
By David Shelby Washington File Staff Writer
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information
Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: