The Crimes of Saddam Hussein

By Dave Johns

1980–1990 The Marsh Arabs

Middle eastern countryside

The Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs are a mostly Shiite Muslim Iraqi people who have lived off the country’s wetlands in southeastern Iraq for more than 5,000 years. The marshlands vary seasonally between 8,000 and 20,000 square kilometers near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and once constituted the largest wetlands ecosystem in the Middle East. The region is also the site of some of Iraq’s richest oil deposits. The Marsh Arabs traditionally survived off fishing, cultivation, buffalo breeding and cane reed gathering, from which they made crafts. In 1953, a major municipal project was begun to build a drainage canal to irrigate land between the Tigris and the Euphrates for farming. Saddam co–opted the project and drained the marshlands, destroying the livelihoods of the Arabs who lived there. The canal became known as the Saddam River. His purpose in bleeding the marshes dry was primarily to flush out Shi’iah rebels hiding in the relatively inaccessible reed beds. As many as 200,000 people were forced from their homes as regime forces bombarded Marsh villages, set fire to houses, laid land and water mines, and arrested, tortured, executed and forcibly displaced people.

Charges and evidence

Satellite images taken in 1992 and 2000 by NASA showed that 90 percent of the marshlands had disappeared. The United Nations called the draining of Iraq’s wetlands “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.” In 1991, an estimated 250,000 Marsh Arabs lived in the region; today only 20,000 to 40,000 remain. Human Rights Watch has referred to the attacks on the Marsh Arabs as crimes against humanity. The Iraqi regime’s efforts have rendered the land less fertile and less able to sustain the livelihoods of local people. Some people believe Saddam’s actions constitute genocide.

Back to top     Next: Suppression of the 1991 Uprising