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Under Guard, Dates Make a Comeback

A festival celebrating the best crop in years is held amid tight security. The U.S. sees hope in the industry's revival, but farmers remain fearful.

September 19, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAQUBAH, Iraq — The view from a Black Hawk helicopter is of a lush triple canopy -- vegetables carpeting the ground in square green swatches, orange trees crouching over them in verdant rows, and towering above them all, Iraq's king crop, date palms.

But farmers have a different perspective on the ground -- one of internecine political violence and gunmen waiting for them on the way to market.

The U.S. military is attempting to revive Iraq's date palm industry, which has been badly neglected since 2003, and on Monday arranged a trip for reporters to see the fruits of its labor at a date palm festival in Baqubah.

"Festival" might have been a bit of an overstatement. The exhibition hall was surrounded by Iraqi security forces, and eight Humvees were parked outside its tall walls. Reporters were advised to wear flak jackets in case of attack, and inside, there appeared to be more empty seats than full. Those browsing on baskets of the sticky, sweet fruit were mostly American troops or State Department employees.

Iraq's dates are traditionally used to break fasts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They have been a source of national pride since the time of Hammurabi, about 3,700 years ago. Baqubah, which is also known as the "City of Oranges," was famous for its dates until 2003, when neglect exposed the trees to pests. Harvests were good for little more than coarse date-seed bread and animal feed.

Processing plants for date-palm oil, syrup and honey have moldered since the U.S.-led invasion. Factory owners have fled Baqubah, fearing the daily kidnappings, killings and bombings.

The U.S. military, however, believes the date industry is key to creating jobs and damping the sectarian violence that has rocketed in Baqubah in recent weeks.

The festival was held to celebrate the best crop in years -- about 70,000 tons, up 50% from 2005.

The bumper crop, which came after U.S. forces helped restart pesticide spraying, is still a far cry from prewar yields.

"That's a very small harvest," said Chamber of Commerce member Abu Alla, whose name means "father of Alla." Abu Alla, who declined to give his family name for fear of being targeted for attack, said the harvest "should be twice as large."

"Really there is no actual support for the date palm farmers," Abu Alla said. "We've treated the dates with crop dusters, but our palms are sick and need further treatment. All agriculture in Iraq needs equipment and treatment. We have experience, but we lack equipment."

Once a breadbasket for much of the Middle East, Iraq saw its agriculture decline steeply under Saddam Hussein, falling victim to U.S.-backed economic sanctions and the regime's frivolous spending. Ruthless scorched-earth campaigns against Shiite farmland laid waste to thousands of palms. Iraq, once the world's largest producer of dates, lost 30 million trees over two decades.

Now, farmers say that Iraq's many-sided conflict is hampering yields.

Splendidly robed and adorned with a checkered headdress, Abu Adhim Abbas Mohammed, one of Diyala province's most prosperous farmers, said he was pleased with this year's harvest. But he acknowledged that he was still not seeing normal yields. Mohammed said that his 37 acres should yield 45 tons, but he was expecting to reap two-thirds that amount.

And the cost for that modest success has been high.

Several of Mohammed's relatives were killed while going to market or trying to buy equipment in Baqubah, he said.

Mohammed nearly met the same fate when gunmen attacked him as he drove to his farm, wounding him in the left arm. He escaped by firing back.

Sectarian clashes at Baqubah's northern and southern outskirts have displaced entire date-producing villages, said local Agriculture Ministry Director General Abbas Thamimi.

"Some of the people were forced to leave by the terrorists," Thamimi said.

Baqubah Mayor Khalid Sanjary said that he knew of at least 40 farming families that had left the area in recent weeks.

Home to significant populations of Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs, Baqubah and its environs have recently been rocked by a series of assassinations and gun battles between Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents.

On Monday, assassins killed the mayor of Udaim, a town 20 miles north of Baqubah. Last month, gunmen killed about two dozen people in a restaurant in nearby Khalis, once a date-processing center.

Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to operate in the Baqubah area three months after the U.S. Air Force dropped two bombs on its leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi. He had been hiding in the Baqubah suburb of Hibhib, known for its date wine.

"These assassinations are taking place on Baqubah's main streets," the mayor said. "These are political conflicts. All the militias and gunmen are here."

Lt. Col. James Rice, deputy commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, said the violence in Baqubah was designed to alter electoral demographics.

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