QAL'AH SALAH, Iraq - Something strange has surfaced in Iraq's once fertile southern marshlands: water. And much of it comes courtesy of Saddam Hussein, the very man who drained the region in the first place.
"I haven't drunk from the marsh for a decade," said Hashim Saeed Mohammed, dipping his cupped hands in a shimmering tributary. "This is a result of the war and freedom. Thank God for the Americans."
After enduring years of oppression that included a methodical campaign to destroy their ancient habitat, Iraq's so-called Marsh Arabs are rejoicing in one of the great ironies of the US-led invasion of the country: Hussein, in a futile attempt to check the coalition advance on Baghdad, opened the same canals he dammed a decade ago to deprive the region of the river waters that once nourished it.
That has delighted an entire population of the Ma'dan people, as the Marsh Arabs are also known, but it concerns aid workers who were caught flat-footed by Hussein's maneuver. Having spent years appealing to the international community to reverse what the United Nations Environment Program called "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters," marsh specialists say the wetlands' snap revival could do more harm than good.
Encouraged by flooding in the Basra region, some marsh communities farther north are flooding their villages by destroying dikes.
"We're telling them not to do this," said Ali N. Muthana, who is conducting a survey of Iraq's marshlands for The AMAR International Charitable Foundation and confirmed it was the former regime that replenished the marshes. "If they all start flooding at once, it could destroy their agricultural lands. We're in danger of losing control of the situation."
Muthana said that salt deposits have calcified around the dry wetlands and that some reflooded areas already show high levels of salinity. The rising tide also imperils villages and farms built over the past decade in desiccated areas, he said. "It's OK for one group to flood their communities, but if they all do it at once it's a disaster."
That means little to a people rebuilding an economy they cultivated for thousands of years along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before losing it to a generation of Hussein's tyranny.
The Ma'dan, historically among Iraq's most independent people, have always had brittle relations with the state, and it was no different under Hussein, who began persecuting them once he consolidated power in the early 1970s. Before then, Iraq's marshlands covered about 12,000 square miles, from the southern province of Basra to the cities of Nasiriyah and Kut. According to AMAR, Ma'dan communities stretch from Iraq to central Iran and are estimated to have included nearly a half-million people in the middle of the last century.
At their peak, the marshes produced a bounty of fish, sugarcane, papyrus reeds for paper stock, and livestock for every major city in Iraq. It was a prosperous biosphere, a constellation of villages as isolated from one another as they were from the rest of Iraq.
Villagers live in clusters of mud huts with thatched, arched roofs and navigate from one community to another in dugout canoes. In summer they cool themselves with electric ceiling fans, a rare concession to modernity; in winter they warm their homes by burning cakes of dried cow dung. A village consists of about a hundred people on average - largely extended families - with 50 mud huts or so and just as many water buffalo.
"The presence of the marshes is like air conditioning for the region," said Taleba Taha Radi, a Qal'ah Salah-based anthropologist. "It freshens the air and balances the climate. And it was a pivotal part of the Iraqi economy."
Over the past 10 years, the marshes had been all but extinguished. After his 1991 defeat in Operation Desert Storm and the full-scale rebellion that followed, Hussein intensified his persecution of the Ma'dan into a sustained ethnic cleansing.
Many of the rebel militias opposing the regime found sanctuary among the labyrinthian streams and high papyrus reeds of the marshes. So Hussein ordered the construction of enormous dams to seal the wetlands from the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. He also deployed thousands of troops to subdue the Ma'dan by conducting mass arrests and bulldozing, bombing, or shelling entire villages. The population of Iraq's Marsh Arabs, depleted by urban migration, has dwindled to an estimated 40,000.
"We were attacked with chemical weapons," said Sayeed Hazem Al Husnawi, a spiritual leader in Hamara, a small, predominantly Shi'ite village in Nasiriyah Province. Husnawi lifts his pant legs to reveal a ribbon of scar tissue around both ankles. "I was hung upside down and had a screwdriver jammed into my leg, but I was fortunate. A lot of our Muslim brothers have been killed . . .without a fair trial."
Hussein is gone, the marshes are percolating back to life, and some Ma'dan are returning to their homes, according to Muthana. In Geir Mathali, the most heavily flooded wetland area, fishermen are bringing in daily hauls.
In the nearby village of Beit Nasrallah, fishermen are casting their nets for the first time in decades. The high salinity levels are of little concern to them. The water tastes fine, they say, and the fish are healthy. Faqhir Yaseem, alongside a gurgling fountainhead riddled with leaping young fish, said: "Just look . . . Next year they'll be fully grown."