…The Mesopotamian Marshlands — home of the Marsh Arabs — exist at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Many have imagined this area the site of the Garden of Eden. Until the early 1990s, this “Eden” was the Middle East’s largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. The Marsh Arabs — also known as the Madan — are among the oldest peoples on earth, dating back 5,000 years. They are a link to the Sumerians. For all these millennia, they have lived in their marshes, gliding in their skiffs, called “mashoofs,” and dwelling in their reed huts. They have subsisted on fish and water buffalo, chiefly. The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger made them famous in the 1960s, when he published his book The Marsh Arabs.
The marshes were always a mysterious place, a haven and hideout for rebels, bandits, dissenters. When the Shiites failed in their uprising against Saddam after the Persian Gulf War, many of them sought refuge in these marshes. And the local residents, hating the regime — like most Iraqis — sympathized with them. Saddam decided that the area and the people had to be eradicated.
What happened next is a picture of pure evil; it can scarcely be absorbed. In a massive push called the Third River Project, the regime created dams, dikes, and canals — and dried up the marshes. One new canal was called the Mother of All Battles River; there was also the Fidelity to the Leader Canal. With amazing speed, this vast wetland became a desert. The plants died, the animals died, water was nowhere. One newspaper report had residents saying that it was as though someone had pulled a plug. Saddam destroyed a full 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, establishing a military zone in their place.
But there’s much, much more. The elimination of the marshes caused the people to starve, flee, or die — and Saddam did all he could to make sure they died. He poisoned the lagoons; he shelled villages; he set reedbeds ablaze; he imprisoned, tortured, and executed; and he attacked these Iraqis with WMD — with chemical weapons. He left no technique untried. In August 1993, a British writer and filmmaker, Michael Wood, said that the dictator’s “slow genocide of the Marsh Arabs is nearing its climax.”…