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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 region.

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:


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