HAWIJA, IRAQ — For nearly three years, farmer Sarheed Ahmed barely touched his land. He was too afraid of drawing the attention of the masked gunmen who terrorized the area, or of the U.S. attack helicopters that prowled overhead.
Now, Ahmed says, he can farm until late at night without worrying about safety. But in a cruel twist, the rain didn't come this season.
After struggling through five years of war, Iraq is facing an acute drought, which has slashed agricultural production and threatens to decimate livestock. In the worst-hit northern provinces, areas that were covered with golden wheat fields and verdant pastures have become a dust bowl.
For communities such as Hawija, a northern farming town that is just beginning to emerge from fighting that pitted U.S. and Iraqi forces against Sunni Muslim militants, the drought could hardly have hit at a worse time. How it is managed will test a government weighed down by bureaucracy, corruption and distrust.
Agriculture is Iraq's largest employer, accounting for the livelihoods of 25% to 40% of the workforce. If production can be boosted, U.S. officials believe, the sector could become an engine for stability. But drought hardships could drive some people back into the arms of insurgents with cash at hand for anyone willing to plant a bomb.
"Ninety percent of the people in Hawija live off farms," said Mohammed Hussein, a mayor in the area. "If the farmer can't work his land, he will have no choice but to be a terrorist to support his family."
The fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are among the places where farming was pioneered about 10,000 years ago. But the rest of Iraq is largely arid, leaving farmers vulnerable to erratic rains.
The rainfall last winter, when the country receives most of its precipitation, was about 30% of the average, according to the Water Resources Ministry. During the key planting period from October to December, many regions received no measurable rainfall.
Iraq has survived worse droughts. But the effects are particularly severe now because reservoir and river levels are also low after several years of reduced rainfall, Agriculture Minister Ali Bahadili said in a telephone interview.
"This is a very hard time," he said.
Water levels are also affected by dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and Iraqi officials accuse their neighbors of taking more than their fair share. However, those countries also have been hurt by the drought.
Irrigation canals crisscross Hawija, but the water level is controlled by the Dukan Dam in the semiautonomous ethnic Kurdish region to the north.
Many of the mostly Sunni Arab farmers in Hawija were convinced that the Kurdish regional authority in Irbil was deliberately holding back water until U.S. officers brought them photographs showing that the dam's reserves had dropped by 10 billion gallons.
U.S. officials say it is a problem of conflicting priorities. The Kurdish region uses the dam to generate electricity. So it stores water in the spring, when it is most needed by farmers, to build reserves for the hot summer, when demand for power peaks.
"We talked to everyone in the government in Baghdad, Irbil and Kirkuk about this problem, but no one is listening to us," said the chairman of the Hawija district council, who asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, Abu Saddam. "The people in the north of Iraq . . . don't care about the farmers in Iraq."
Sunni militants preyed on such disaffection to gain a foothold in Hawija, a strategic crossroads between the oil-rich provincial capital, Kirkuk, and the refinery town of Baiji. And U.S. officers worry that mounting frustration could again become a catalyst for violence.
"It's the most secure it's been, but at some point the newness and novelty of that wears off, and people start expecting something else," said Maj. Brian Tuson of the Army's 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. "If they perceive the government to be unresponsive to what they see as reasonable demands, that could backslide."
Hawija's canals filled for the first time this season on the day that Ahmed began harvesting a paltry and stunted winter wheat crop.
He has a well, which provided enough water to plant half his 37-acre field. But that won't be sufficient to support the 45 people who live off the farm. So Ahmed also works as a neighborhood guard, part of a U.S. military program that has helped drive militants out of some of Iraq's most violent places.
"We couldn't farm before because we were scared all the time," said Ahmed, a hefty man in a worn brown tracksuit and dark sunglasses. "Now, I can work all night, if I want to. We have all the freedom, but there is no water, no fertilizer, nothing."
Ahmed's neighbor, who didn't have a well, wasn't able to plant a thing this year. His field is a dry and cracked wasteland studded with weeds.