Some saw it coming, although they couldn’t have predicted its speed. Both Syria and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iraq, began dam building projects in the 1950’s diverting the Marsh Arabs water for their own agricultural projects. Their water, along with a five-thousand-year old way of life, had begun drying up. It would have happened eventually, but Saddam Hussein helped it come like lightening.
For five thousand years, the Marsh Arabs were a self-governing people, managing to fly below the radar, breaching their own dams and flooding their homes, retreating to the marshes when the many conquering armies came through the region. But in 1980, following the revolution in Iran, many of the Shiite leaders sought refuge in the marshes. And the Marsh Arabs, themselves Shiites, took in and hid these refugees. Afraid that a similar revolution would sprout among the Shiite population in Iraq, Saddam started a systematic campaign of arrests and executions removing the male heads of families and forcing the expulsion into Iran of the women and children left behind. That was his first attempt. The second was in 1991 and it was clearly more insidious, aimed not just at dismantling their families, but the way of life of an entire region.
At one time there were as many as five hundred thousand Marsh Arabs living in the marshes, today less than forty thousand. Commissioning four drainage canals, several dams and a third “river” he called “The Mother of All Canals,” Saddam redirected quadrillions of gallons of water that fed the marshes, dumping them uselessly into the Persian Gulf. He claimed that the redirected water was to be used for agricultural purposes, but not a single project was initiated as a result.
It was really a campaign of genocide against the Marsh Arabs for their part in the 1991 Shiite uprising, a three-week insurrection prompted by the Americans and the British following Desert Storm. The Shiite Muslims answered the American call, but when Saddam turned on them, so did the Americans. They were left stranded in the desert, and without their water which was being diverted to the Persian Gulf, they had no place to hide. Many were imprisoned, many others assassinated, and still others packed off to refugee camps in Iran where they still live today.
to be continued. . .