The marshes - at least as they existed prior to 1991 - owed their existence to melting glaciers and rising sea
levels following the end of the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. As the once-dry Persian Gulf filled in, the
Tigris and Euphrates, as well as tributaries that tumbled out of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran and
onto the flat Mesopota-mian plains 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, built an enormous river delta, pushing the
Gulf's shoreline out to its current locations.
The freshwater marshlands - three large interconnected patches centered on the confluence of the Tigris
and Euphrates - are thought to have emerged from salt-water predecessors some 3,000 years ago.
Yet what geophysical pro-cesses took thousands of years to build, humans have nearly destroyed in a
decade. According to documents captured after the 1991 Gulf War, as early as 1989, following the Iran-Iraq
war, Mr. Hussein's regime was worried about "subversive elements" in the marshland region. The
government's blueprint for action included moving Marsh Arabs onto "dry land," where they would be easier
When the Shiite Marsh Arabs, or Madan, rebelled against Baghdad after the Gulf War, the Republican Guard
crushed the rebellion, and the government put the blueprint into action.
Iraqi officials have maintained that the government drained the wetlands to allow its oil industry to exploit oil
deposits beneath the marshes. Indeed, at least one large canal had been on the drawing boards since the
Policy to destroy Marsh Arabs
Yet the documents uncovered after Iraq lost the 1991 conflict combined with the speed with which the
eight canals, "rivers," and levees were built leads many outside analysts to conclude that the regime was
engaging in the wholesale destruction of the marshes to exact retribution for the failed rebellion.
"The evidence is pretty clear that Saddam drained the marshes solely for the purpose of destroying the
Marsh Arabs," says Joseph Dellapenna, a Villanova University law professor who specializes in international
The Marsh Arabs, he says, were the targets of genocide, thus adding strong legal and moral imperatives to
efforts to aid them - including restoring the marshlands to the extent possible.
Some advocates of marshland restoration pin their hopes on the lessons gleaned from projects such as
CALFED, which seeks to restore the ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, while
ensuring adequate supplies of fresh water for irrigation and drinking in parched regions of the state.
One of those lessons is the importance of working with the local people, who may have different agendas for
the same gallon of water, says Michelle Stevens, project manager for Eden Again. She notes that her group
has been working with the Iraq Foundation and with expatriate Marsh Arabs who have settled in the US.
ISTAR also has embraced the idea, collaborating with AMAR International Charitable Foundation, based in
London, which has been aiding the Marsh Arab refugees in Iran since 1991.
One of the first steps in any restoration effort will be to update information on conditions in the region -
ranging from the levels of poisons and pollutants in the water to the composition of the saline soils that
have replaced much of the area that marshes covered.
Information on plants and wildlife also is woefully out of date. "We have no data from 1980 on" detailing bird
populations, Dr. Stevens says. The group has had to rely on research-expedition reports from as far back as
1915 to piece together a picture of the marshes' "original" look.