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New evidence shows marshlands draining away.

Recent satellite photographs of southern Iraq seem to confirm the claims of Iraqi opposition groups about the scale of Saddam Hussein's plan to drain the marshes. As much as 30 per cent of the Al Amarah marsh - one of the main marsh areas - is now dry. The satellite imagery also shows that large sections of the Al Hawizah marsh - bordering Iran - are also drying out. In addition, the images confirm the existence of an extensive new system of drainage canals and dykes along the western side of the River Tigris, many of which have been completed in the last year.

The Baghdad regime insists that the drainage schemes are part of an ambitious plan to rejuvenate thousands of hectares of farmland rendered useless by salt encrustation. Opposition groups such as the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) have always dismissed this rationale, saying the schemes are part and parcel of a long-term plan to crush rebel activity in the region.

Their claims have been given further weight in recent weeks by an upsurge in the number of people fleeing the region. They say that Iraqi troops have been bombarding their villages with mortar and artillery fire from positions on newly drained land. Over 6,000 Iraqis have crossed into Khuzestan province from the marshes since the beginning of August and are now sheltering in makeshift camps near the Majnoon oilfields.

Most are Ma'dan - Marsh Arabs - who live in much the same way their ancestors did 5,000 years ago. But without a guaranteed water supply, living in the marshlands is impossible and so the Ma'dan say that the drainage schemes mean the end of their lifestyle.

Until these new satellite images became available it was difficult to confirm the accuracy of claims by Iraqi opposition groups about the scale of the Baghdad regime's activities in the marshes. Maps and plans taken from an Iraqi engineer captured by rebel fighters in October last year gave some indication of the plans. But so many copies of these documents are now circulating that it is difficult to check their authenticity.

However, one of the key features identified on the captured maps - a 50-kilometre canal running south from a point near Qal'at Salih to Al Qurnah - is clearly visible on the March 1993 satellite image of the region.

Observers say this massive, kilometre-wide canal has been constructed with incredibly speed, because satellite photographs taken as late as April 1992 show no sign of it. According to SCIRI, the dam running east to west across the northern end of the Al Amarah marsh and connecting to the canal was completed in the same period.

Shaikh Haman Hammudi, a senior SCIRI official, says the dam has diverted the flow of some 40 rivers that previously fed the Al Amarah marsh, into the canal, which then takes the water straight to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The impact on water supplies for the Ma'dan living in this area has been catastrophic, he notes.

For Saddam Hussein, reclaiming the marshes is doubly effective. Not only do the drainage schemes make the region progressively less inhabitable; they also enable his troops to penetrate much deeper into the marshlands and attack rebel hideouts that were previously too risky to approach by boat.

With the construction of a series of causeways on the dried out marshes in the area west of the north-south canal, Saddam Hussein has been able to bring heavy artillery to bear on villages that were previously out of range. The causeways are clearly visible in satellite photographs.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees who have arrived in Iran in the last month have come from the Al-Amarah marshes. Some of the refugees say they have been under almost continuous bombardment from mortar and artillery batteries. Many have had to swim for parts of the journey while unknown number have perished along the way, succumbing to injuries incurred during the bombardments, or to hunger and thirst in temperatures that have been averaging over 40 degrees centigrade.

Baghdad's offensive may be directed against the small bands of insurgents hiding in the marshes, but it is those people who are not directly involved in rebel activities who suffer most.

Some of the Ma'dan who now fill the border camps are rebel fighters, but most are fishermen and subsistence farmers who lead a hand to mouth existence at the best of times. "Life has become impossible", says one new arrival who lost two of his five children while making the 20 mile journey from his village with his wife.

Most of the new arrivals are showing some signs of malnutrition. "The kids are skin and bone", says the British MP Emma Nicholson, who visited the refugee camps on the border at the beginning of August, on behalf of the Amar Appeal, the charity which she chairs.

And as the water levels have declined, catches of fish - one of the staples of the Marsh Arabs'diet - have fallen in parallel. Moreover, because of the reduction in fresh water flowing into the marshes, suitable drinking water has become increasingly difficult to find. Indeed, most of the children, and a large proportion of the adults, who have recently fled are suffering chronic diarrhoea as a result of drinking polluted water. Cases of cholera have also been reported by Iranian doctors working among the refugees, although they have succeeded in inoculating all of them against a range of other diseases.

If refugee numbers continue to increase at their current rate, the Iranian Government may demand international action against President Saddam Hussein. At the moment, the burden of caring for the refugees is being borne almost entirely by Tehran. Emergency medical supplies are being funded by the Amar Appeal, but Iranian relief officials say they are approaching the limit of what they can afford.

US, British and French aircraft continue to police the no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel, established last August in response to an outcry over Saddam's brutal crackdown in the marshes. But on a visit to London in May, Shaikh Hammudi, a senior SCIRI official, claimed the no-fly zone was making almost no difference to the Marsh Arabs. Iraqi forces knew that they could act with impunity as long as they did not use helicopters, he said. He called on Western forces to bomb the dykes and causeways in the Al-Amarah marsh and the artillery positions on them.

Emma Nicholson repeated Hammudi's call after her visit to the region in early August. She has also called on Western governments to establish a safe haven in southern Iraq, similar to the one in the north and received a sympathetic hearing from British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

But in reply to her request, his deputy, Foreign Minister Douglas Hogg, ruled out a southern safe haven on the grounds that Saddam would not allow the necessary monitors in and that it would represent unwarranted interference in Iraq's internal affairs - an ironic excuse considering the current situation in the north.

The key to increased Western intervention remains, of course, with the US. And the Clinton Administration shows no desire to increase its involvement beyond policing the no-fly zone, in line with its evolving policy of seeking to contain Iraq, rather than change it.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Norton, Andre
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1215
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