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Waters slowly return, but life may never be the same for Iraq's `Marsh Arabs'

CHEBAYISH, Iraq—One beaming Marsh Arab child after another leapt off the rooftop of Saddam Hussein's deserted casino into a new lake, the first time they'd been able to swim in the marshland waters that nourished their ancestors for 5,000 years.

Saddam built dams to dry up the very existence of the Marsh Arabs, or Madan, who challenged his rule 12 years ago. U.S. troops recently released water from one of the dams, part of a plan by Iraqi and American wetlands experts to rehabilitate at least part of the marshes on what is now 7,000 square miles of cracked moonscape.

"It came back like a flood," said Farghad al Hayoon al Asadi, 32, the youngest son of the tribal chieftain of the Asadi clan that lives in this southeastern Iraqi village. "We haven't been able to get our children out of the water ever since."

Yet the marsh isn't the same. The water, once fresh, came back salty. The depth in May was about 5 feet, compared with 12 feet when the Americans first released the water weeks earlier. The fish that returned with the murky water were small and inedible.

Former fisherman Nouri al Asadi said the fish were so bad that he was convinced the damage was permanent.

"If the marshes return, so will the people, but I don't think the marshes will return," said Asadi, 36.

Oday al Asadi, 41, shows a visitor a faded album with 20-year-old pictures of what the Chebayish marshes used to look like. Willowy trees and marsh reeds towered alongside rivers and lakes rich in fish and waterfowl. The Madan harvested the reeds, which they bent and wove into arch-shaped houses.

The reeds also hid the rebels who fought Saddam's forces. A decade ago, Iraqi troops cut and burned all the reeds in Chebayish and neighboring villages.

Today, there is no sign of marsh reeds or rivers teeming with life. What used to be marshland is made up of gray clumps of cracked earth with sparse desert vegetation broken up by dry riverbeds. The Madan say the blinding dust storms that blow across south-central Iraq are a result of this devastation. Even in Chebayish, where some green fields flourish now as a result of the recent return of water, a scramble up the banks of one of the canals the Iraqi leader built reveals a moonscape as far as the eye can see.

Experts with an Iraqi expatriate organization called Eden Again are spearheading the restoration effort, funded in part by a $200,000 State Department grant.

But getting enough water to restore even part of the marshes may take years, depending on the acquiescence of Iraqi farmers and oil executives, who benefited from the drainage program. Agreement also is needed from Syria and Turkey, whose dams curb the flow of water into southern Iraq.

Restoring this ancient culture is equally daunting.

Only 40,000 Madan live today in what was once a fertile delta, according to Human Rights Watch. Twelve years ago, there were about a quarter-million Madan in the Iraqi marshlands.

Saddam had clashed with the Madan since 1980, when they refused to take part in Iraq's war against Iran.

The Madan, who are Shiite Muslims, rebelled for three weeks 12 years ago and were crushed by Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim regime. Thousands were killed, many in Chebayish, a central haven for the rebels.

The first drainage ditch opened in December 1992. The siphoning scheme led to what the United Nations calls "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters." At the same time, Iraqi troops attacked Madan villages with helicopter gunships and tanks.

Most Marsh Arabs resettled in government-controlled villages along the main road to Baghdad or fled to Iran. Rubble pile after rubble pile near the road that bisects the parched region are all that's left of the more than 60 Madan villages the regime obliterated.

One of the Madan who fled was Habib al Asadi. He, his parents and 10 siblings watched as a tank destroyed their six-room house in Saharat, a suburb of Chebayish, in 1987 the day after an army officer had marked the front door with a painted red "X."

In defiance, the family kept moving back to Saharat, only to have the troops return and attack again. By 1992, when his aunt was fatally wounded by a tank shell that landed 10 feet from where she squatted to bake bread, Asadi decided he'd had enough. He and his older brother Hassan crossed into Saudi Arabia. A couple of years later, they sneaked back across Iraq and into Iran.

For nine years the brothers and about 2,900 other Chebayish-area residents lived in the Bani Najar refugee camp near the Iranian city of Gotvand.

The brothers returned to Chebayish on April 9, leaving behind their wives and children and paying the equivalent of $100 apiece to be smuggled across the border.

"We had to come, to help restore electricity, hand out aid, do whatever it takes to rebuild life here," Asadi said.

Recently, he launched Chebayish's first newspaper, called "Unity" in Arabic, which is filled with stories about atrocities Saddam committed.

"We should never forget, and we should never give up," he said. "We've suffered too much."


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

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