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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.

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Ariel I. Ahram is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech, Alexandria, Va.; e-mail:
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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
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