BAGHDAD, Iraq—In normal times, as hunting seasons draws to a close at the end of January, Aws Abdul Raheem just now would be putting away his dusty hunting boots and shotgun, counting how much he'd made by selling kill and remembering the meals he'd provided with what he'd kept.
But these are far from normal times in Iraq, so Raheem now counts himself a member of Iraq's fastest growing category of sportsmen: former hunters.
"It's been hard since the war. Nobody wanted the American or Iraqi soldiers to see them while they're walking around with a gun," he said. "There are still a few hunters. The bird flu will stop those."
In the demise of their sport, former hunters and officials see how life here has become nearly impossible for everyday people. Iraq has been a magnet for misfortune. Beyond the constant presence of death and the everyday threat of kidnapping and robbery, city streets remain blocked for military purposes, sidewalks are crisscrossed with coils of razor wire, electricity is spotty and sewers are more commonly broken than working.
It made perfect sense that it was only a matter of time before a deadly strain of bird flu arrived. The Ministry of Health confirmed earlier this week that a 14-year-old girl from the north was the first known Iraqi death.
During such times, hunters such as Raheem yearn to escape the city and walk the desert looking for gazelle, tracking falcons—a profitable undertaking, as rich oil sheiks throughout the Persian Gulf region pay handsomely for captured birds—and even hunting the wild pigs so craved by the Christian minority in a nation that abhors pork.
"Hunting is banned this year," he explained. "But it wasn't very good anymore."
For example, take the Francolin, a favorite sport bird of Iraqi hunters. Known locally as Deraj—walking birds—they used to be plentiful, foraging off the seeds in the grain fields between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But since the war, with water hard to find and remote areas dangerous, farmers have abandoned their fields, and the fertile green patches have turned gradually to dust. The birds have vanished with all other life.
In fact, Ali Ibraheem, the head of the Ministry of Agriculture's Animal Protection Department, said officials had banned hunting both out of a fear of bird extinction and the threat of the deadly flu.
"Hunting wild birds is forbidden," he said. "But wild birds are now unwanted visitors here."
Laith Yehia is the secretary general of the Iraqi Hunters' Association—made up of about 3,300 members, including 2,500 hawk hunters, who search for nests on the ground—which had to move when U.S. troops seized its headquarters.
He said the war hadn't been all bad for hunters: The increased freedom of information meant that they could check Internet forecasts to plan trips around bad weather.
"Before the war, many people went hunting," he said. "The homes of our members are often searched, because of their weapons. They're fine because we have special licenses, but most hunters don't have them and they are very afraid."
Raheem said that when he thought back on the days of hunting, "it's like an old dream. Before the American occupation of our country we used to wait every year for the hunting season."
The season runs from Oct. 1 through Feb. 1. "They were the best ... months of the year."
Now they're gone.
Falah Saleh sadly calls himself a former hunter. He notes that no one willingly quit hunting. Nobody willingly quit sending children to school or leaving the house at night, either.
"I can only blame the Americans because they have changed our life," he said. "I feel that I live in a different country now. Nothing is the same anymore."
(Alawsy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HUNTERS