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DEVELOPMENT, COUNTERINSURGENCY, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF THE IRAQI MARSHES

  • Ariel I. Ahram
Abstract

Following the 1990–91 Gulf War and the subsequent March 1991 uprising, the Iraqi government launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia. Alongside mass killing and forced population resettlement, the state used hydrological infrastructure to divert water from the wetlands, permanently desiccating the area. Using newly available Iraqi government archives, this paper argues that the destruction of the marshes was the result of a complex interplay between sectarianism, development planning, and security imperatives. Inhabited by peripatetic Marsh Arabs (Maʿdan), the marshlands stood out as an impenetrable wilderness. Baʿth policies in the marshes combined measures meant to promote social and economic modernization with counterinsurgency tactics meant to achieve control over the marsh region. After 1991, the regime set out to obliterate a terrain it deemed a strategic liability and a population that seemed an obstacle to modernization.

Copyright
Corresponding author
Ariel I. Ahram is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech, Alexandria, Va.; e-mail: ahram@vt.edu
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NOTES

Author's note: This article benefited from grants by Virginia Tech's Global Issues Initiative and the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies. I thank the staffs of the Conflict Records Research Center and the Hoover Institution archives, the IJMES editorial team, and the anonymous reviewers.

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11 For a discussion of sectarianism in the events of 1991, see Haddad, Fanar, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 132–42; and Davis, Eric, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005), 244.

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23 Travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325–1354, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 271–2. For more on marsh banditry, see Floor, Willem, “The Rise and Fall of the Banu Kaʿb: A Borderer State in Southern Khuzestan,” Iran 44 (2006): 277315; Matthee, Rudi, “Between Arabs, Turks, and Iranians: The town of Basra, 1600–1700,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 69 (2006): 5378.

24 Albertine Jwaideh, “The Marsh Dwellers of Southern Iraq: Their Habitat, Origins, Society, and Economy,” Wadie Jwaideh Memorial Lecture, Indiana University, 30 October 2007, accessed 2 September 2014, http://www.indiana.edu/~nelc/events/documents/jwaideh_lecture_2007.pdf, p. 20.; Buxton, P. A. and Dowson, V. H. W., “The Marsh Arabs of Lower Mesopotamia,” The Indian Antiquary: A Journal of Oriental Research 50 (1921): 293.

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27 Camille Cole, “Mesopotamia: Empire, Environment, and the River Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Iraq” (bachelor of arts thesis, Pomona College, 2012), 82–88.

28 Murphey, Rhodes, “The Ottoman Centuries in Iraq: Legacy or Aftermath,” Journal of Turkish Studies (1983), 25; Ceylan, Ebubekir, The Ottoman Origins of Modern Iraq: Political Reform, Modernization and Development in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 187204.

29 Willcocks, William, Irrigation of Mesopotamia (London: E. & F.N. Spon, Ltd., 1911), 35.

30 Howell, Evelyn, “River Control in Mesopotamia,” Quarterly Review 237 (1922): 77, 82. See also Ionides, M. G., The Régime of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris (New York: Chemical Publishing Co., 1937), 201.

31 The Control of the Rivers of Iraq and the Utilization of Their Waters (Baghdad: Irrigation Development Commission, 1951). See also Sousa, Ahmed, Iraq Irrigation Handbook, Part I (Baghdad: Iraqi State Railway Press, 1944); Lebon, J. H. G., “The New Irrigation Era in Iraq,” Economic Geography 31 (1955): 4759; Qubain, Fahim I., The Reconstruction of Iraq (New York: Praeger, 1958), 5964.

32 Jennifer R. Pournelle and Guillermo Algaze, “Travels in Edin: Deltaic Resilience and Early Urbanism in Greater Mesopotamia,” accessed 28 November 2012, http://www.environ.sc.edu/PournelleWebPage/pdfs/Edin%2039.pdf; Satia, Priya, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 159–61; Omissi, David, Air Power and Colonial Controls: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), chap. 2.

33 Cox, Jafna, “A Splendid Training Ground: The Importance to the Royal Air Force of Its Role in Iraq,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 13 (1985), 168–69.

34 For example, see Visser, Basra, 55, 61, 100, 124; and Salim, Marsh Dwellers, 31–32.

35 For a broad discussion of the influence of mid-20th-century modernism in Iraq, see Bahoora, Haytham, “Baudelaire in Baghdad: Modernism, the Body, and Husayn Mardan's Poetics of the Self,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2013): 313–29; Marefat, Mina, “Wright's Baghdad: Ziggurats and Green Visions,” Revista de crítica y teoría de la arquitectura 1 (2008): 145–55.

36 Salim, Marsh Dwellers, 15–18, 41. On medicine in Iraq under the British, see Omar el-Dawachi, “The Professionalization of the Iraqi Medical Doctor in Britain: Medicine, Citizenship, Sovereignty and Empire” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2008), chap. 2. On education, see Simon, Reeva S., Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), chap. 4.

37 On malaria, see Pringle, Gordon, “The National Campaign against Malaria in Iraq, Part 1,” Bulletin of Endemic Diseases (Baghdad) 1 (1955): 87118; Al-Amin, Tariq, “Malaria Eradication Programme in Iraq, 1957–1960,” Bulletin of Endemic Diseases (Baghdad), 4 (1961): 116. On bilharzias, see Watson, J., “Studies in Bilharziasis in Iraq, Part IV. The National Anti-Bilharzias Campaign,” Journal of the Faculty of Medicine (Baghdad), 14 (1950): 2537.

38 Nahi, Salah al-Din ʿAbd al-Latif, Muqaddimah fi al-iqṭaʿ wa-l-Nizam al-Aradi fi al-ʿIraq (Baghdad: Dar al-Maʿarif, 1955).

39 Farouk-Sluglett, Marion and Sluglett, Peter, “The Transformation of Land Tenure and Rural Social Structure in Central and Southern Iraq, c. 1870–1958,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983): 491505; Batatu, Hanna, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement in Iraq (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), Books I and II.

40 Fernea, Shaykh and Effendi, 121–23, 136–49.

41 Warriner, Doreen, Land Reform and Development in the Middle East, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 18, 136–37, 141, 151–57; Haj, Samira, The Making of Modern Iraq, 1900–1963: Capital, Power, and Ideology (Binghamton, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1997), 3738; Qubain, Reconstruction of Iraq, 206, 233–35, 246–47.

42 Drower, E. S., The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 125.

43 Thesiger, Wilfred, The Marsh Arabs (New York: Penguin, 2008), 78. See also Batatu, Hanna, “Iraq's Underground Shiʿa Movement: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects,” Middle East Journal 35 (1981): 583–85; Nakash, Yitzhak, The Shiʿis of Iraq (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 2526, 47–48, 175.

44 Warriner, Land Reform and Development, 159.

45 Salter, Lord, The Development of Iraq: A Plan of Action (Baghdad: Iraq Development Board, 1955), 39.

46 Nakash, The Shiʿis of Iraq, 132–34; Bashkin, Orit, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 212–26.

47 Fernea, Robert A., “Land Reform and Ecology in Postrevolutionary Iraq,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 17 (1969): 356–81.

48 Makiya, Kanan, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), 21, 134.

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51 Oleg Smolansky with Bettie Smolansky, M., The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), 31.

52 Dzięgel, Leskik, Rural Community of Contemporary Iraqi Kurdistan Facing Modernization (Krakow: Agricultural Academy, 1981), 2427; McDowall, David, A Modern History of the Kurds (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003), 339–40.

53 Jones, C., Sultan, M., Yan, E., Milewski, A., Hussein, M., Al-Dousai, A., Al-Kaisy, S., and Becker, R., “Hydrologic Impacts of Engineering Projects on the Tigris-Euphrates System and Its Marshlands,” Journal of Hydrology 353 (2008): 5975.

54 Douabul, Ali A. Z., Mohammed, Sama S., Warner, Barry, and Asada, Taro, “Persistent DDE in the Mesopotamian Wetlands of Southern Iraq,” Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 82 (2009): 690–93; Jawad, >Laith, “Impact of Environmental Change on the Fresh Water Fauna of Iraq,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 60 (2003): 587–88.

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56 Khoury, Dina Rizk, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5667.

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59 Pollack, Kenneth, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948–1991 (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 203–6.

60 SH-IZAR-D-000-207, “Study by 3rd Corps Command Regarding Tactical Flooding of the Hawizeh Marshes Located Along Iraqi Borders,” 10 April 1981.

61 Khoury, Iraq in Wartime, 111–14.

62 ABSP Box 3205-0000-0080 to 0110, “Report to the Leadership of the Southern Organization,” 2 May 1984.

63 SH-BATH-D-000-518, “Study from the Commander of East Tigris Operations Regarding Historical, Demographic, Geographic, and Political Aspects of al-Ahwar region,” 26 May 1985.

64 Khoury, Iraq in Wartime, 186–95, 213.

65 ABSP Box 3205-0000-0427, Report of 23 May 1984; ABSP Box 3205-0000-0765, Report of 15 April 1984.

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67 Woods, Kevin, Murray, Williamson, Nathan, Elizabeth A., Sabara, Laila, Venegas, Ana M., eds., Saddam's Generals: Perspectives on the Iran–Iraq War (Washington D.C.: National Defense University, 2011), 47, accessed 26 October 2012, http://www.ndu.edu/inss/docUploaded/saddams-generals.pdf; Woods et al., Saddam's War, 68.

68 Woods et al., Saddam's Generals, 127.

69 ABSP Box 3205-0000-0741, report of 23 April 1984; ABSP Box 3205-0000-0383, memorandum of 5 May 1984; ABSP Box 3205-000-0364 to 0366, telegraph of 6 May 1984.

70 Mitchell, Christopher, “Assault on the Marshes,” in The Iraqi Marshlands: A Human and Environmental Study, ed. Nicholson, Emma and Clark, Peter (London: Politico, 2003), 6869; SH-IZAR-D-000–781, “Intelligence report on Fourth Corps Command Sector area of operations,” January 1985.

71 SH-RVCC-D-000-218, “Report to Saddam regarding the implementation of the operational recommendations in the Marsh Arab areas,” May to September 1987; Khoury, Iraq in Wartime, 114.

72 Juma, K.H., “Present Status of Buffalo Production in Iraq,” Buffalo Journal 2 (1997): 103–13; Alsaedy, Jabar K., “Iraq Buffalo Now,” Italian Journal of Animal Science 6 Supplement 2 (2007): 1234–36; Spinnage, Clive, Cattle Plague: A History (New York: Springer, 2003), 495.

73 Woods et al., Saddam's Generals, 48–49.

74 Pollack, Arabs at War, 224–28.

75 On Faw's symbolic significance, see ABSP Box 01-2219-0002-0037, Report of 20 June 1989; On the reconstruction effort, see Barakat, Sultan, “The Rebuilding of Fao City, Iraq: A Case of Government Post-War Reconstruction,” in Disasters and Small Dwellings, ed. Aysan, Yasemin and Davis, Ian (Oxford: James & James, 1992).

76 SH-GMID-D-000-527, “Correspondence of General Military Intelligence Directorate with the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Oil regarding geometrical work in Huwayza Marches,” March to November [sic] 1988.

77 ABSP Box 025-4-5-0442 to 501, Documents from 1989 Concerning the Marshes.

78 Khoury, Iraq in Wartime, 138–40.

79 SH-IZAR-D-001-169, “Document Regarding Plan Set by the Operations Department Recommending the Drainage of the Hawizeh Marshes to Limit the Sabotage Operations,” 17 April 1992.

80 SH-PDWN-D-000-328, “Speech by Saddam to the Iraqi People Regarding the 1991 Uprisings in Iraq,” 19 March 1991.

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82 Makiya, Kanan, Cruelty and Silence (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 102–3; Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq, 118–27; Davis, Memories of State, 244.

83 Goldstein, Eric, Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq and Its Aftermath (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992), 2223.

84 SH-GMID-000-591, “Study Prepared by the Intelligence System of the Southern Zone Regarding the Hawizeh Marshes’ Geography and Local Tribes,” May 1992.

85 Goldstein, Endless Torment, 23.

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87 SH-IZAR-D-001-169, “Document Regarding Plan Set by the Operations Department Recommending the Drainage of the Hawizeh Marshes to Limit the Sabotage Operations,” 17 April 1992; Mitchell, “Assault on the Marshes,” 79–81, 85–86.

88 ABSP Box 01-3382-000-0149, Letter of 14 November 1992; Baram, Amatzia, “Neo-tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Tribal Policies, 1991–96,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997): 131; Mitchell, Assault on the Marshes, 79–81, 85–86; “Iran aiding Iraqi Shiites, Arabs say Hussein sends arms to marsh tribesmen in bid to forestall infiltrators,” The Globe and Mail, 3 September 1992.

89 SH-MODX-D-001-195, “Plan to Purge and Search the Arab Marshes in the Areas of the 3rd and 4th Corps,” 16 July 1992; SH-GMID-000-591, “Study Prepared by the Intelligence System of the Southern Zone Regarding the Hawizeh Marshes’ Geography and Local Tribes,” May 1992.

90 Mitchell, “Assault on the Marshes,” 79.

91 Shyam Bhatia, “Murder of the Marshes,” The Observer, 28 February 1993; Chris Hedges, “In a Remote Southern Marsh, Iraq Is Strangling the Shiites,” New York Times, 16 November 1993.

92 Peter Smerdon, “Saddam's ‘Third River’ Nearly Complete Amid Row Over Threat to Marsh Arabs,” Reuters, 27 August 1992; Christopher Bellamy, “Iraqi Push to Complete Strategic ‘Third River,’” The Independent, 21 August 1992.

93 Glenn Gibson, “War and Agriculture: Three Decades of Agricultural Land Use and Land Coverage Change in Iraq” (PhD diss., Virginia Tech, 2012), 23, 62.

94 Jim Bodgener, “Turkey's Stranglehold on the Euphrates Irks Its Neighbours,” Financial Times, 3 January 1990; Jongerden, Joost, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy 18 (2010): 137–43.

95 Jones, “Hydrologic Impacts.”

96 Richardson, C. J., Reiss, Peter, Hussain, Najah, Alwash, Azzam, and Pool, Douglas, “The Restoration Potential of the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq,” Science 307 (2005): 1307–11.

97 Al-Yamani, F., Bishop, J. M., Al-Rifaie, K., and Ismail, W., “The Effects of the River Diversion, Mesopotamian Marsh Drainage, and Restoration, and River Damming on the Marine Environment of the Northwestern Arabian Gulf,” Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management 10 (2007): 277–89.

98 Spinnage, Cattle Plague, 495.

99 Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), “Iraqi ‘Sources’ Say ‘Military Attack’ Launched on Marsh Arabs in the South,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 17 September 1997.

100 Jérôme Le Roy, “Statistical Outline of the Situation of the South Iraqi Refugees in Iran, Including the Marsh Dwellers,” in Nicholson, The Iraqi Marshland.

101 Richardson, Curtis J. and Hussain, Najah A., “Restoring the Garden of Eden: An Ecological Assessment of the Marshes of Iraq,” BioScience 56 (2006): 477–89.

102 Cole, Juan, “The United States and Shiʿite Religious Factions in Post-Baʿthist Iraq,” Middle East Journal, 57 (2003): 548, 554; Patrick Cockburn, “Marsh Arabs Threaten to Resist Army of Occupation,” The Independent, 27 June 2003.

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104 Bridget Guarasci, “Reconstructing Life: Environment, Expertise and Political Power in Iraq's Marshes 2003–2007” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011).

105 Jim Muir, “Iraqi Marshes Face Grave New Threat,” BBC News (Baghdad), 24 February 2009; Gibson, “War and Agriculture,” 25.

106 Dhiya Rasan, “‘Prince’ Loses Favor in Amara,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 21 February 2005, accessed 31 August 2012, http://iwpr.net/report-news/prince%E2%80%9D-loses-favour-amara; See also “Security in the Maysan Province Deteriorates,” Confidential Memo from Regional Embassy Office, Basra to Secretary of State, Washington D.C., 13 October 2006, accessed 27 August 2014, https://wikileaks.org/cable/2006/10/06BASRAH160.html; “Maysan Province Contacts Says It Is Not Ready for PIC,” Confidential Memo From Regional Embassy Office, Basra to Secretary of State, Washington D.C., 12 December 2006, accessed 27 August 2014, https://wikileaks.org/cable/2006/12/06BASRAH176.html.

107 Le Roy, “Appendix,” in The Iraqi Marshlands.

108 U.S. Agency for International Aid, Final Report: Agricultural Reconstruction and Development Program for Iraq, December 2006, 323, 328, accessed 27 August 2014, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pdacj285.pdf.

109 Richards, John F., The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005), 22.

110 Khoury, “The Security State and the Practice and Rhetoric of Sectarianism.”

111 Central Intelligence Agency, Special Intelligence Memorandum, “Humanitarian Situation in the Marshes,” 20 August 1993, accessed 13 July 2012, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB167/11.pdf.

112 Pianciola, N., “The Collectivization Famine in Kazakhstan, 1931–1933,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 25 (2001): 237–51.

113 Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).

114 Etten, Jacob van, Jongerden, Joost, Vos, Hugo J. de, Klaasse, Annemarie, and Hoeve, Esther C.E. van, “Environmental Destruction as a Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Kurdistan Region of Turkey,” Geoforum 29 (2008): 1786–97; Jongerden, Joost, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy 17 (2010): 137–43; Gurses, Mehmet, “Environmental Consequences of Civil War: Evidence from the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey,” Civil Wars 14 (2012): 254–71.

115 Weizman, Eyal, Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (New York: Verso, 2007); Alatout, Samer, “Walls as Technologies of Government: The Double Construction of Geographies of Peace and Conflict in Israeli Politics, 2002–Present,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99 (2009): 956–68.

116 Gerlach, Christian, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 5; Rice, Edward E., Wars of the Third Kind: Conflict in Underdeveloped Countries (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988), 9397; Khalili, Laleh, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2012), chap. 6.

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