Why We Went to War

Jul 21, 2003
Why We Went to War



A Culture on Our Conscience


To reach the ninth level of Saddam’s Inferno, you take a plane from Baghdad south to Basra, then hop an open-air 40-minute helicopter ride in 118-degree heat to what was once the world’s closest approximation to the Garden of Eden.

For centuries this region was among the world’s lushest fresh-water marshlands, a cradle of ancient civilization and home to the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. Today this particular marsh village looks like the surface of the moon, only bleaker. There is nothing here but dirt and rock, straw huts and destitute Shiite Muslims. Saddam Hussein drained most of the marshland in revenge for the Arab uprising against him in 1991 after the first Gulf War, and after President George H.W. Bush had asked Iraqis to rise up against him. So the fall of Saddam, at last on April 9, was salvation day for the Marsh Arabs, and also a redemption day for one dreadful U.S. blunder.

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Such facts on the ground are one reason that Americans can take pride in what is happening in Iraq, regardless of sterile Washington debates about intelligence, or lack thereof. By now everyone except al Jazeera concedes that Saddam was a demented tyrant. The mass graves of Hilla have been publicized, though not nearly enough. The First Marine Expeditionary Force says it has so far logged no fewer than 60 mass gravesites in its area of operation, and that is only in central Iraq.

But the shock for a first time visitor to Iraq is that the destruction committed by Saddam’s tyranny is so much worse than advertised. The damage from the American bombing campaign is obvious as one drives or flies around, but it is also rare and incredibly precise. The Iraqi TV building in Baghdad is gone, for example, but the houses around it look untouched. The most horrible damage on Iraqis was inflicted by Saddam himself. The Americans who are giving their lives to stop his Middle East Stalinism will end up saving many more lives.

The story of the Marsh Arabs is a relatively unknown human and environmental crime. Credit for making it known at all belongs to Baroness Emma Nicholson, a member of the British House of Lords and European Parliament who has adopted them as a cause since 1991. She arrived in this village this week to a hero’s welcome, along with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps (after President George W. Bush) the man who has done the most to redeem America’s abandonment of the Marsh Arabs after the Gulf War.

“This village is a microcosm of what happened against the marsh people,” Baroness Nicholson says in a room of the very spare medical clinic here. They once totaled half a million, but after Saddam’s depredations there may be only 250,000 left, and fewer than 40,000 in their native region. “We believe it to be genocide,” she says.

Saddam’s troops and Fedayeen first stormed through the region in armed helicopters in 1991 — the helicopters that Norman Schwarzkopf allowed him to keep. One man says his son was hung for belonging to a Shiite political group. Another man says his father and uncle were hung in front of him when he was a 15-year-old. Entire families were slaughtered.

As Stalin did with the Kulaks, the Sunni Saddam then sought to erase the entire Arab Shiite marsh culture. He drained or silted up most of the historic marshes, with their centuries-old ecosystem of reeds, countless species and water buffalo that supplied 70% of Iraq’s milk. Rich with oil money, even under U.N. sanctions, Saddam could always buy other milk or have his people do without it. But his pathology is that he felt he had to murder systematically anyone who challenged him, and so ruining a chunk of Iraq’s economy and natural beauty is just one more cost of megalomania. The U.S. is now working to restore nine of the marshes, but so far Iraq lacks the electric power to pump enough water to do it, says Eugene Stakhin, the coalition’s senior advisor to the Ministry of Irrigation.

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