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Arabs from Iraqi marshlands long for home despite `environmental disaster'

GOTVAND, Iran—Aziz Asadi, a refugee from Iraq's ruined southern marshes, carries in his pocket a crumpled leaflet he said was dropped by American warplanes flying over a homeland he hasn't seen since 1993. His younger brother, Zaher, carries an identical white leaflet, as do other so-called Marsh Arabs who make their home in Bani Najar refugee camp here in southwestern Iran.

Passed hand-to-hand more than 100 miles until they arrived here, the Arabic-language leaflets warning Iraqi troops not to use weapons of mass destruction against coalition troops stirred up excitement among the 2,900 Marsh Arabs who've lived in the camp since escaping Saddam Hussein's bloody reprisals a decade ago.

The papers are the first tangible evidence that the U.S.-led coalition is serious about getting rid of the Iraqi leader who destroyed their homes and the entire ecosystem upon which they thrived.

Yet Marsh Arabs are also wary of the U.S. pledge to liberate their homeland. The first President Bush encouraged them to rebel against Saddam but then did nothing to help them when Saddam crushed their revolt. Before Saddam, Marsh Arabs for 5,000 years fished and bred buffalo in the marshlands around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. With the emergence of Islam, these Arabs became part of what is now Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

About a quarter-million Marsh Arabs lived in this fertile delta in the spring of 1991 and took part in a three-week uprising, which Saddam quickly quelled. Thousands were killed. A relentless bombing campaign and intensified efforts to drain the oil-rich marshland drove the rest out.

As soon as Saddam flees, the Asadi brothers and other camp dwellers pledged to return to their wrecked homeland.

Whether they can survive in Iraq is another matter. The marshes, once covering 7,722 square miles, are now brown and dry. Saddam built dams and canals to reroute the rivers and lit fires to destroy the vegetation. The U.N. Environmental Program deemed the result in a 2001 report to be "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters."

"The Americans should rebuild our marshes," said Zaher Asadi, 29. "We can't live without them. We'll starve."

Their homes are also gone. Refugee after refugee at Bani Najar on a recent Thursday recounted how Iraqi helicopter-fired missiles destroyed the brick structures following the Persian Gulf War. The Asadis insist that the United States allowed Saddam to send those helicopters into the no-fly zone, proving the first Bush administration's complicity in the attacks. They say it was the United States that showered their land with leaflets urging them to revolt in the first place.

Marsh Arab males who refused to serve in the Iraqi military or who took part in the revolt were jailed or tortured, as were their siblings, parents, wives and children, according to human rights groups. Many, like the Asadi brothers' uncle and cousin, were executed.

But the ancient tribes clung to their land.

They hid in the water during the day, and rebuilt their homes with marsh reeds by night. The helicopter gunships returned, bombing them anew.

"The message was clear: `You stay, and we'll kill you,' " said Jassem Karim-Asadi, 33, of Nasiryah, a distant relative of the Asadi brothers and fellow Bani Najar resident.

So the Asadi clan left. Family after family traveled three or more nights on foot without food or belongings, heading east toward neighboring Iran and into the camp that is now their home. Tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs ended up fleeing to the southwestern Iranian province of Khoozestan, many ending up in seven refugee camps concentrated north of the provincial capital, Ahwaz.

Camp residents live in two-room cinderblock dwellings, each with a small courtyard. The few marsh reeds growing outside the camp perimeter are but a reminder of the life they left behind. The refugees earn what little money they can by harvesting carrots in vast fields that surround Bani Najar.

Their children, many of whom have never seen Iraq or are too young to recall it, say they yearn to return to their ancestral homeland. They speak and write Persian, an Arab generation educated in Iranian schools. Yet they appear more eager to return than their parents.

"If they (U.S. troops) hit today, I'll leave tomorrow," Ali Sarihat, 13, insisted.

Haydan Asadi agreed. "I want to study and have a comfortable life in Basra," a major city in southern Iraq, the 16-year-old said. "Here I have no salary, and I don't want to spend my life picking carrots."

"I have no picture in my head of what Iraq looks like or where I'd have a place, but I have lots of family there whom I've never met," Asadi added. "Maybe I'll go to them."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+MARSHARABS