the confluence of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern
Iraq lies a unique, unspoiled natural wilderness. Within a 30,000
square kilometre triangle whose points are marked by the cities of
Basra, Nasiriya and Amara, are pristine marshes that teem with thousands
of species of birds, fish and animals. In this labyrinth of waterways
live the approximately 200,000 Ma'dan or Marsh Arabs, a unique people
who trace their origins back to before 3000 BC.
The Marsh Arabs are descendants of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians
and are probably the oldest people in the world-- long predating
the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks. They invented writing and, according
to their myths, emerged from a mix of air and water six or seven
thousand years ago. They certainly date before the biblical flood--
which took place in Mesopotamia-- described in the Sumerian Epic
of Gilgamesh. Throughout the history of the area, the Marsh Arabs
have maintained their separate identity and their ancient traditions,
protected by the wildness of the marshes. Even the Turkish and British
colonialists left the marshes and the Ma'dan alone.
The Marsh Arabs' distinct culture is inextricably linked to their
environment; their dwellings are made from papyrus and mud and they
travel by reed canoe. They live exclusively by tending water buffalo,
farming, fishing and hunting in the marshes.
The Marsh Arabs' fragile existence-- untouched for centuries--
is now in great danger. Saddam Hussein, who cannot accept that any
Iraqi lives outside the control of his totalitarian dictatorship,
is determined to destroy the Marsh Arabs and will stop at nothing
to achieve this plan. International observers fear a another genocidal
campaign aimed at the Marsh Arabs similar to Saddam's campaign against
the Kurds in the late 1980s in which 200,000 people were killed.
Iraqi propaganda has begun to describe the Marsh Arabs as "sub-human",
"un-Iraqi" and "monkey-faced."
Saddam has already begun to attack the marsh environment as a way
of attacking the Marsh Arabs. Large amounts of toxic chemicals and
poisons have been dumped into the marshes to kill the fish which
are the main part of the people's diet. Napalm bombing has burned
large areas of vegetation.
The most ominous and dangerous development in the campaign against
the Marsh Arabs is an enormous water-diversion programme designed
to destroy the marshes forever known as the `Third River Project'.
A United Nations report declares: "(The Third River Project)
will clearly result in the draining of much of the marsh area of
its water, surrendering the silty soil to the dry air. As the reed
beds become exposed, they die, further contributing to the deterioration
of the environment. It is the environmental crime of the century."
This crime will have its effects beyond Iraq and the Gulf region.
The Iraqi marshes are an important stopping point on the migration
routes of birds between Siberia and Central Asia and Africa and
as the marshes are destroyed so are these birds.
Although people and groups such as Prince Charles and Amnesty International
have spoken out against the destruction of the marshes, the international
communtiy has failed to take any action. The Iraqi National Congress
urges the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution,
under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, to introduce human rights
monitors in all parts of Iraq, especially the marshes. Such a plan
has already been proposed by Mr. Max van der Stoel, Special Rapporteur
for Iraq of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Most urgently of all, the international community must establish
a full security-zone to protect citizens from government attacks
in the area of Iraq south of the 32nd parallel. We continue to urge
the members of the Security Council to support international action
toward establishing such a security-zone, providing direct humanitarian
aid to the people of the marshes, and launching an internationally-sponsored
environmental assessment of Saddam's attempted destruction of the
The international community must act immediately before an ancient
people and a unique eco-system are wiped out forever.