Among the under-reported casualties of the Iraq regime’s ongoing war against its people have been the indigenous marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war, the vast riparian marsh areas that form the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates had become a haven for deserting Iraqi conscripts, and thus merited regular shelling and bombing by Iraqi artillery and warplanes. These attacks helped instill anti-regime attitudes among the marsh dwellers. Following the collapse of the post-Gulf war uprising in southern Iraq in March 1991, thousands of rebels and their families found shelter in the high reeds that cover the marshes. Clashes with central government forces have been relatively constant. Since the imposition of a “no-fly zone” over southern Iraq late in the summer of 1992, Iraqi attacks have been restricted to artillery shelling. Reputedly one of the world’s oldest living cultures, descendants from the ancient Sumerians, the marsh Arabs have become the object of a determined government campaign to wipe out their culture once and for all. Beyond the military dimension, this campaign takes the form of a water diversion scheme ostensibly designed to promote agricultural development by draining the marshes. Its particular features, though — environmental destruction and a looming forced relocation of the population — suggest different motives.

The plan to construct a canal from Nasiriyya east to Basra to drain the large Hawr al-Hammar was conceived in the 1950s but began to be implemented only in the late 1980s. In his report to the Security Council in November 1992, the special UN Rapporteur on Iraq, Max van der Stoel, condemned the recently completed Third River Project, despite its development potential, for “threaten[ing] to destroy this unique culture together with the unique environment and landscape wherein [the Marsh People] have survived for millennia.”

In fact, the Western concern devoted to the Third River Project has permitted the regime to divert attention from the larger water diversion scheme in southern Iraq. Several enormous embankments are currently being constructed to dam in the water of branches of the Tigris River that flow into the marshes. The largest dike runs parallel to the Tigris itself, from close to Amara down to Basra.

So far, these projects have not produced any major dislocation of the marsh population, mostly because the army has not yet been able to penetrate the area. Instead, people are constantly on the move, either because their villages are being destroyed by artillery fire or because sheets of water have dried up. They have tended to move to nearby deeper pools of water, and rebuild their reed houses there. Fears are, though, that come summer the remaining reservoir of marsh water will dry up and the army will begin its final advance. If the regime’s past practices in the Kurdish areas are any indication of what might transpire in the south, the marsh Arabs will be rounded up and moved to large housing projects, or “complexes,” far from their familiar habitat and deprived of their livelihood while their villages are razed to the ground. Resistance fighters who fail to make a timely escape across the border into Iran are likely to meet the fate of Kurdish fighters during the lethal 1988 Anfal campaign in the north.

Iraqi resistance organizations have sought to publicize the government’s campaign, but have found little response. Van der Stoel is expected to include the matter in his March report to the Security Council. Absent decisive and immediate action by the UN, Iraqi opposition leaders say, the future of Iraq’s marsh Arabs appears ominous.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Diverting Water, Displacing Iraq’s Marsh People," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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