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Dry them out.

Iraq's southern marshlands have provided a refuge for anti-government rebels over which Baghdad is determined to reassert its tenuous hold. Alan George summarises the extensive efforts being made to drain the marshes and bring them under control.

SADDAM HUSSEIN's regime has launched a determined drive to drain large swathes of Iraq's southern marshes as a means of depriving rebels of cover and bringing the populace to heel. Dressed up as a "land reclamation" programme, the scheme will result in major human and ecological catastrophes.

Saddam's plans were prompted by the bloody but abortive rebellion in mainly Shia Muslim southern Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait. Although the revolt was crushed, groups of rebels plus large numbers of civilians took refuge in the marshes. With assistance from neighbouring Iran, the guerrillas have continued to mount raids against the Iraqi army. Saddam's forces routinely shell the marshes but have been unable to use helicopters and other aircraft since August last year, when the UN declared southern Iraq to be a no-fly zone for Saddam's air force.

The marshes - home to an estimated 120,000 people - occupy an extensive area around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers broadly delineated by a triangle with its points at the towns of Amara in the north, Nassiriya in the south west and Basra in the south. Their eastern edge coincides roughly with the Iran-Iraq frontier.

The Baghdad government's first major engineering operations in the region were undertaken during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. A wide canal, bounded by large earth embankments, was built from near Qalat Salih (on the Tigris south of Amara) to Huwair, on the Euphrates near its confluence with the Tigris at Qurna. This allowed the drainage and agricultural settlement of a large area on the right bank of the Tigris - and denied cover for dissident tribesmen and army deserters alike.

Drawings seized from Iraqi government engineers by Shia rebels show that since the Gulf crisis a new canal has been built running east-south-east from a point near Al Salam to meet the northern end of the first canal. Completed last September and defined by six metre high dykes, this prevents water entering from the north and drains it direct to the Euphrates. In addition, in a project completed last July, feeder rivers north of the new canal have been banked to prevent their waters spreading.

Similar embankment works were also finished last July along rivers feeding the Howeizeh marshes, to the south east of Amara. These, however, have had only a limited impact as about 65% of the waters flowing into these marshes come from Iran and are beyond Saddam's reach.

Another key element in Saddam's plan is the so-called Third River, a canal between the Euphrates and Tigris. Originally intended to drain saline water from agricultural land in the marshes, the scheme was initiated as long ago as the 1950s but proceeded fitfully. Last year, however, Saddam revived the project with a vengeance and by year's end the canal was completed.

After crossing the Euphrates via a siphon near Souq al Shuyuk (south east of Nassiriya), the canal runs south of the Hammar marshes to enter the Gulf near the Iraq/Kuwait frontier. In July last year earthworks near the siphon were completed which divert most of the Euphrates' flow north of the Hammar marshes into the Third River. Since the diversion, work has been underway on a major embankment along the south bank of the Euphrates from Souq al Shuyukh eastwards. When this is complete, in summer if all goes to plan, the river will be returned to its normal course, but the embankment, 25 metres wide at its base and six metres at the top and five metres high, will stop seepage into the Hammar marshes.

In yet another operation, also scheduled for completion in summer, a series of embankments are under construction which will allow the drainage of two large rectangular areas, together of 1,500 square kilometres, to the west of the area drained during the Iran-Iraq war.

For Baghdad, the drainage schemes have high priority although three factors have slowed progress: rebel action against the earthworks; unusually heavy winter rains; and the actions of the Kurds in northern Iraq. In an effort to frustrate Saddam's plans for the marshes, the Kurds have released large volumes of water from behind the Dokhan dam on the Tigris.

The work in the marshes, however, has been hindered but not halted. Already, like the Kurds in northern Iraq, the marsh dwellers are subjected by Baghdad to a tight economic blockage as well as persistent shelling. Without the marshes - their protection and the basis of their entire way of life - their doom would be assured. A human and ecological catastrophe is unfolding.
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Title Annotation:Iraqi government draining southern marshlands to flush out rebels
Author:George, Alan
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Bitter words between neighbours.
Next Article:Bloody frustration.

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