UMM AL GHAREEJ, Iraq — Like hundreds of villages that dot the Tigris River south of Baghdad, this cluster of cinder block-and-mud dwellings draws its livelihood from small farming plots cultivated by hand and crude machinery.
This is the heart of Mesopotamia, the biblical land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where one of the world's first civilizations thrived on the bounty of the land.
Today that land is sick.
Qassim Mohammed, 20, whose family has farmed here since 1980, has left more than half his 30 acres unplanted this year. The harvest was so poor last year, he said, that he couldn't recoup the cost of seed and fertilizer.
"This land is weak," he said, strolling in a flowing robe through a field where the salt-crusted earth offered only a scruff of dead weeds.
Mohammed's acreage is typical of much of the farmland south of Baghdad.
Reliable agricultural statistics have been unavailable since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But the level of wheat imports, which surged during the United Nations oil-for-food program in the late 1990s, shows the extent of the decline of agricultural production.
Three years after the invasion, Iraq still imports about three-quarters of the wheat its population consumes, said Jamil Dabagh, economist for the Ministry of Agriculture.
The agricultural decline began under the centrally controlled economic system of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime. Neglect of the intricate system of irrigation canals that crisscross Iraq aggravated centuries-old problems with salt buildup and poor drainage. As the land deteriorated, free fertilizer and guaranteed prices kept farms going, Dabagh said.
Yet agriculture, which has provided the primary means of support for more than a third of Iraq's population, was an afterthought in U.S. rebuilding efforts, which concentrated on oil, electricity and municipal water systems.
"Everybody looks at Iraq as an oil country," said Col. Randy Fritz, the former agricultural counselor to the U.S. military.
Three years after the ouster of Hussein, no coherent policy has emerged on resuscitating Iraq's agricultural sector, and most indicators show the situation worsening. Much of Iraq's degraded farmland could be restored, experts say, but there are sharp disagreements on how to do it.
U.S. officials would like to increase the yield on farmland still in production and see Iraq move toward a free-market system. But Iraqi agricultural officials contend that crucial resources are too short for farmers to make a quick transition into the world market. The Ministry of Agriculture continues to pay more than $200 a ton for wheat, more than the price on international markets. Bahadli said the phaseout of price supports should be done over a 10-year period.
Iraq's U.S.-educated minister of Agriculture, Ali Bahadli, contends that the problem threatens both Iraq's economic stability and cultural identity.
"This is our life," Bahadli said of farming. "If we cannot do it, our future will be very dark."
A plant pathologist trained at UC Davis, Bahadli advocates massive expenditures for land reclamation, the slow and costly process of washing salt-laden soil. Such a program, centered in the south, could cost tens of billions of dollars, he estimated, far more than either the Iraqi budget or the U.S. development program can support.
In contrast to such sweeping reform proposals, the U.S. military has established some direct programs to assist Iraqi farmers. Many commanders have used discretionary funds to clean irrigation canals, set up co-ops and repair facilities. U.S. Army civil affairs officers, who see the rural unemployed as a source of recruits for the insurgency, sometimes take issue with U.S. agricultural officials who they say are in Iraq to open markets for U.S. exports.
"How can you expect someone who represents Iowa wheat to give impartial advice to farmers in Iraq who could raise their own wheat?" one civil affairs officer told a visiting congressman last year. The Iraqis "need to grow some of their own, not import all of it" from the United States.
The USDA is fully committed to the development of Iraq's agriculture, said James Smith, agricultural counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But Smith said that the picture was complex, and that American feed exports, for example, could stimulate Iraqi's depleted poultry industry.
"If they prefer to import frozen chickens, we can meet their needs with high-quality, low-cost meat," Smith said.
"If they prefer to grow their own poultry, we can provide them excellent corn and soybean meal. If they want to grow their own chicken feed, we can provide them the seeds."
Yet another view is that the best course for Iraqi farmers is to shift away from wheat production, which has long been promoted as a national birthright.