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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 19:00 GMT
Iraq 'drained historic marshes'
Picture (courtesy of Amar) showing how the Marsh Arabs region once looked
The marshlands have existed for over 10,000 years
A British charity has accused the Iraqi government of turning a once-rich marshland region into a desert.

In its report the Amar Foundation says the land inhabited by the so-called Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq has been virtually drained.

The marshes were once filled with wildlife - fish, buffalo, wild boar, lizards and millions of birds.

But now the charity says it has satellite images showing how up to 20,000 square kilometres of water has been reduced to just 1,300 square kilometres.


For the Marsh Arabs it is the last opportunity that their voice will ever be heard again

Baroness Emma Nicholson

Baroness Emma Nicholson, the charity's chairman, said: "It is not too late, 10% of the marshland remains.

"It is a last chance for the Iraq regime to restore a human right of these people, but for the Marsh Arabs it is the last opportunity that their voice will ever be heard again."

The marshes in southern Iraq were once regarded as being unique for their ecological properties.

Just over 12 years ago the marshes - fed by two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates - housed rich vegetation.

Destroyed

The Marsh Arabs lived on islands built from reeds and straw in homes ranging from small huts to reed halls.

They are a people who have been living in this way for more than 5,000 years, said Baroness Nicholson.

"This is a part of the world which has remained unchanged for over 10,000 years and which has been destroyed within two decades," she said.

The Amar report outlines the ongoing plight of the Marsh Arabs.

As many as 95,000 of them have been forced to escape into neighbouring Iran, fleeing what they say are the repressive policies of Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad.

Amar say they "have a right" to return.

The report claims Baghdad has destroyed the Marsh Arabs' livelihood, under the pretexts of agricultural development.

'Acute suffering'

The Iraqi regime has employed an ambitious civil engineering project with the aim of deliberately draining the marshes, the charity's website report claims.

To do this they diverted the two rivers feeding the marshes giving the Iraqis military access to the region.

But it has also led to what the charity says is "the destruction" of the Marsh Arabs self-sufficient economy and the marshland vegetation as well as sending "tens of thousands of refugees" into camps in Iran.

"It has led to acute suffering, malnutrition and a critical public health situation," says Amar.

Britain and the United States have tried to offer protection to the Marsh Arabs by enforcing an air exclusion zone over southern Iraq.

But this has failed to secure their future.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's David Campanale
"The land lost to the drainage programme has turned to desert"
See also:

21 May 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Marsh Arabs seek aid
04 Jan 01 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein profile
24 Jan 99 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein: His rise to power
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