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In Iraq, a Long Way Back to Eden

A decade ago, Hussein's regime drained the marshes, and local Arabs' livelihoods, in the southeast. Now the wetlands are slowly being restored.

September 14, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

When the marshes were drained, Sajjad Fathel, 25, moved to the Al Faw peninsula to become a saltwater fisherman. Recently he returned to fish with his brothers in the new waters.

"We get one [44-pound] basket of fish a day and we sell it for 5,000 or 6,000 dinars [about $3 to $3.75]," Fathel said. In the bottom of his boat lay a modest pile of tiny mullet.

"As time goes by, the fish here will be bigger and more plentiful," he declared, grinning.

When the regime fell, fishermen in the area broke down the earthen-dam walls, causing water from the Shatt al Arab and Tigris rivers to flood the former marshlands.

"As soon as the British forces came, we broke the dam. I was with them. We used spades and axes. We knew what to do. We didn't need a leader or a sheik to tell us. We were just waiting for the chance," Fathel said.

Ali Shaheen, head of the Immigration Department in Nasiriyah, said he believed there would be sufficient water from central Iraq to restore the marshes. But it's not clear if authorities can restore the marshlands to what they once were.

"There was irreversible damage," said Ali Mohammed Jawad, a hydrogeologist from the Irrigation Ministry. "I am afraid the marshes will not go back to what they were and the migratory birds will not return."

On the banks here stand blackened date-palm stumps that were destroyed by the drainage a decade ago.

Jawad was in the ministry when the marshes were destroyed. "None of us was enthusiastic about the plan," he said. "But an urgent order came down to drain the marshes, and that was it."

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