The Poison Triangle 

Restoring Iraq’s war-ravaged marshes

Thursday, May 22 2003
Photos by Nik Wheeler

Azzam and Suzie Alwash have big plans, and on the day I visited them at their home in Fullerton, they had misplaced some of them. “Did you call the airport?” “Yes. We have to call them back later.” “How could I leave all the maps on the plane?” “Were they in the overhead bin?” Suzie turned to me: “Those maps were from the National Security Council, and they were sort of half-classified: We could use them, but not show them to anyone. They’re probably no longer sensitive, but we certainly weren’t supposed to leave them on Jet Blue.”

The maps they’re missing are big: 2-by-3-foot views of Iraq, mostly details of the southern part of the country, where, until recently, there once ranged a vast wetlands ecosystem considerably larger than the Everglades. In the past two decades, Saddam Hussein systematically destroyed these marshes, mostly as a punitive assault against the Shiite inhabitants of the area, who took part in the 1991 uprising against Hussein. With regime change under way, Azzam hopes to realize a goal he’s nurtured for years — to return to his homeland and revive one of the world’s most important wetlands.

That’s also the mission statement of Eden Again, an organization Azzam founded in 2001 to study the technical aspects of such a restoration. It was on a trip to Washington, D.C., representing Eden Again in meetings with officials at the State and Defense departments that he brought the maps. They were forgotten on the return flight. It’s an understandable oversight, as Azzam is as busy as he’s ever been, caught in a cyclone of preparations for a vital field survey of the marsh area to begin in early June. “I’m sure they’ll find them,” Azzam said as he sat down at the dining table. Then he joked: “I just hope they don’t look at me funny when a guy named Azzam shows up at the airport looking for NSC documents.”

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Luckily, Azzam and Suzie had plenty of other maps around from earlier meetings. “Here is one from the ’70s,” said Suzie. She held a laminated, mounted Landsat image showing a dense patchwork of vegetation and water, stretching over thousands of square miles. This was the original extent of the Mesopotamian marshes, the enormous inland delta that had been the anchor of the Fertile Crescent and the birthplace of Western civilization.

Ancient lifestyle ruined in the late 1980s(Photos by Nik Wheeler) “And this one is the year 2000. As you can see . . .” Now flat brown, the area appears as bare earth, totally empty except for the canals, dikes, oil fields and dried lakes that evidenced the scale and technique of its ruin. The transformation is remarkable. Remember the brown clouds kicked up by the dust storms that caught U.S. troops during the war? “That entire area was under water not too long ago,” said Suzie. And those images of the Marines entering Nasiriyah — so quick and thorough was the destruction that only a decade ago those soldiers would have been standing in 10-foot-high reed beds stretching hundreds of miles.

From that same spot outside Nasiriyah, if you headed a short distance downriver along the Euphrates, found the Al Gharraf River, and then followed it north a ways, you would reach its point of departure from the Tigris and, on those intersecting banks, a city called Kut. This is where Azzam grew up. It’s a midsize city, and an important agricultural marketplace. His father was an irrigation engineer, and Azzam used to accompany him on trips into the marshes to arbitrate local water disputes. They also sometimes hunted there. “My earliest memory is sitting on one of these long, narrow boats, the kind with a canopy in the center,” Azzam recounted. “I’d hang over the side, watching the water go by, looking at the ducks. We’d navigate through these small passages between the tall reeds. And when you came out into an opening, there’d be a fresh breeze, and you’d find the marsh dwellers, living deep inside, on artificial islands made of reeds.”

Azzam left Iraq in 1978, at age 19, to avoid having to join the Ba’ath party. He continued his studies in civil engineering in the United States, and wound up at the University of Southern California, where he met his wife, Suzie. They have two daughters, Hannah and Norah. In 1994, the Alwashes heard the first reports about the fate of the marshes, and they wanted to help. “But then, you know, life happens and we had her” — Suzie pointed at Norah, who was doing her homework beside us at the table — “and so the idea sat on the shelf for a while.”

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