Lessons from the destruction of Iraq’s marshes

The immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War saw the unfolding of one of the worst ecological and human catastrophes of the modern era with the destruction of the marshes of southern Iraq. 

Most accounts, including Iraq’s own 2005 constitution, attribute this double ecocide-genocide to Saddam Hussein’s drive for sectarian domination and vengeance against the Shiites, especially after squelching the 1991 March uprising. 

In a paper in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, I offer a different assessment of what transpired in the marshes. Using the Baath party’s own internal archives, I show that much of the decision-making leading to the final destruction of the marshes was driven more by the desperation of war than sectarian animus. 

The counterinsurgency imperative, as so often is the case, led inexorably to natural disaster. Why, as Bernard Nietzschemann caustically put it, do efforts to court hearts and minds so often end with battlefields of ashes and mud? 

The marshes, the largest in southwest Asia, dominated the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at the Iran-Iraq border, and were home to the Marsh Arabs (ma’dan), a unique subculture based on fishing, rearing buffalo and cultivating reeds. 

Western Orientalists often romanticized the marshes as the location of the biblical Eden and the ma’dan as primitive “first men.” Beginning in the spring of 1991, Saddam Hussein’s regime launched a concerted campaign to drain the marsh waters and destroy the ma’dan villages. 

By 1994, nearly 3,000 square kilometers of wetlands, almost two-thirds of the previous area, were dried-out and an estimated 200,000 people had lost their home. 

The marshes were the front line of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and posed an especially difficult and desolate landscape for combat. 

At first, Iraq used hydrological manipulation to block Iranian infiltration. By the end of the war, Iraqi forces had learned to use portable dams and sluices to dry-out the marshes, allowing advances by Iraqi mechanized forces. 

The government knew, though, that support from the marsh residents was critical for operational success and strove to hold on to their hearts and minds. 

While the Baath suspected Iraqi Shiites in general of harboring Iranian leanings, the ma’dan were identified as primitive but “pure” Arabs who could be incentivized to ally with the state. 

Party functionaries and government officials debated ways to win over the marsh residents with roads, schools, clinics and electrification. 

But officials were constantly disappointed by the ingratitude of the ma’dan for the gift of state-initiated modernization. Towards the end of the war, more lethal methods took over. 

Ali Hasan al-Majid, Hussein’s cousin and later the author of Iraq’s genocidal Anfal campaign in Kurdistan, oversaw the establishment of a cordon sanitaire around the marshes, destroying marsh villages and deporting residents. 

Buffalo herds were decimated, fishing prohibited. The marsh ecology itself was identified as an enemy to be overcome. 

This was the context when the marshes again became the last holdout of the rebellion following the crushing of the March 1991 uprising against Hussein. 

Internal documents reveal that on March 29, while Najaf and other southern cities still smoldered, Hussein issued a directive calling for plans to drain the wetlands. 

In public speeches and secretly-taped monologues, Hussein exhibited the self-justification typical of an autocrat confronted by popular antipathy. 

On one hand, he attributed the unrest to Iranian instigators. Since the population was assumed to welcome the chance to become modern and productive, disorder must be attributed to outsiders. 

On the other hand, the Shiites were always suspected of harboring ill-will toward the regime, thereby warranting the harshest repression. Breaking a long-standing taboo against public discussion of sectarianism, government newspapers began pillorying Shiites in general and the ma’dan in particular as debased and un-Iraqi. 

Ali Hasan al-Majid was again dispatched, now conducting a two-year campaign that desiccated, burned, poisoned and ultimately destroyed the marshes. 

What is striking about this campaign against nature is that the actual conduct of counterinsurgency remained anchored in developmental discourse. Iraqi officials justified the construction of new diversionary canals as necessary for agricultural expansion. 

Hussein himself oversaw the ceremonies inaugurating what was known as the “Saddam River,” celebrating it as a triumph of Iraq’s technical prowess. 

The removal of the ma’dan was similarly couched as a modernization initiative. Internal documents concluded that only way to eliminate the sabotage was draining the area and transforming it into arable lands. 

The ma’dan were stubborn and uncivilized; their culture was defined by their physical environment. By changing that environment, authorities could introduce the ma’dan to “a new pattern of life.” 

Upon passing a bill to relocate the ma’dan to state-built housing on desert tracks in April 1992, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament claimed the move was an effort to provide modern amenities like electricity and running water to the ma’dan, whom he described as bumpkins, afflicted with bilharzias and living in close quarters with their animals. 

Ominously likening the situation of ma’dan to the Kurdish relocation, he said that the marsh-dwellers “will not be given a choice to move or stay.” Ultimately, the maʿdan were forced to adopt a new—and to the state, superior—way of life; the marsh waters were rechanneled to more productive purposes. 

While it is easy to dismiss the story of the Iraqi marshes as the consequence of the irrational sectarian hatreds of a delusional dictator, a closer inspection highlights instead a disquieting continuity in the marriage of development and counterinsurgency. 

The destruction of the marshes did not begin in 1991, or even in 1980, but a century earlier. 

For millennia, the marshes had stood out as a stateless zone, comparable to what James Scott describes of upland southeast Asia. Hydrologically incorrigible and physically impenetrable, the area was a natural haven for escaped slaves, dissenters and brigands. 

At the turn of the 20th century though, the Ottomans and British began using advanced cartographic technologies and steamship navigation to assert mastery over the marshes and encourage the transition from peripatetic tribalism into modern citizenship based on settled agriculture. 

“Reclaiming” the marshes for agriculture was a cornerstone of development policies in Iraq. By the middle of 20th century, a host of dams, barrages and canals in Iraq, Syria and Turkey effectively throttled the flow of water to the marshes, causing a creeping environmental disaster. 

Between 1968 and 1984 the marshes shrank by one-third. 

Agricultural run-off and other pollutants fouled the water, and native flora and fauna showed signs of severe ecological strain. On the human side, efforts to transform the ma’dan into yeoman farmers were often coupled with brutal pacification campaigns to suppress tribal uprisings and persistent criminality. 

By the late 1950s, many marsh-dwellers were reduced to sharecropping or had fled to the teeming slums like Baghdad’s Medinat ath-Thawra, today’s Sadr City. Hussein took already destructive and coercive programs for social and ecological transformation and pursued them to their logical and calamitous conclusion. 

 What happened in the marshes was not just an act of war, then, but a strategy of development and social improvement, what Samuel Huntington called “force-draft modernization.” 

The state interceded directly in the human ecology, using advanced technologies to forcibly change the way population interacted with the natural world. 

Similar stories could be told about British and German uses of concentrations camps and “hunger wars” in southern Africa, Soviet eradication of the herds of Kazakh nomads, American defoliation of Vietnamese rice paddies and Portuguese attempts to defeat insurgency by building a dam in Mozambique. 

Third World states have since adopted similar tactics, as in Guatemala’s genocidal 1982 “beans and bullets” campaign in the central highlands. The logic of ecological intervention continues to influence counterinsurgency today. 

David Kilcullen, a doyen of contemporary American counterinsurgency theory, describes his tasks as essentially “armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at.” 

Offering roads, electricity, irrigation, schools, medicine and other trappings of modernity seems a beneficent and peaceful way to win civilian away from the insurgency. Development and counterinsurgency are thus often linked, both tactically and doctrinally. 

But even the best development project entails a measure of ecological disruption and human displacement. 

In the context of counterinsurgency, where policy-makers and soldiers alike become steadily inured to violence, the ends of security and development justify ever more radical and ruinous means. 

There often appears little choice, as Christian Gerlach points out, but to eradicate obstreperous plants and animals, even if they are critical foodstuffs or relocate populations to concentrated areas, even if it requires transfer to patently unlivable habitats. 

These are the inevitable costs in the campaign to change wilderness into well-ordered, well-governed and productive space. 

Once these policies are in place, notions of ethno-sectarian supremacy are but the last steps toward the outright elimination of environmental and human obstacles to mission. Their redemption comes through their extinction. 

Ariel I. Ahram (@ariel_ahram) is an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in Alexandria, Va. He is the author of “Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias” (Stanford University Press, 2011).

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