Birds against democracy

Observations on Iraq

Iraq is about to present Tony Blair with another headache. The Mesopotamian marshes drained by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s were not just the ancestral home of the rebellious Marsh Arabs. They were also the most important birdlife site in the Middle East, one of the top five places in the world for wintering waders, a key refuelling area for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds and the home to one species found nowhere else in the world, the endangered Basra reed warbler. Even more excitingly, the area may still harbour Eurasia's rarest bird of all, the slender-billed curlew, which has been seen nowhere since 1998, when one turned up in Northumberland.

Western environmentalists want to see the lost marshlands reflooded. They are making common cause with western enthusiasts for the Marsh Arabs' 5,000-year-old way of life, dependent as it was on growing rice and dates, raising water buffalo, fishing, and building boats and houses from reeds. The Iraq Foundation, which enjoys the support of non-Iraqis as well as Iraqi expatriates, has set up a project called Eden Again, dedicated to the restoration of the marshlands, supposedly the site of Adam and Eve's garden, for the benefit of their traditional inhabitants.

Andrew Natsios, the boss of Usaid, the agency with lead responsibility for physical reconstruction in Iraq, has said that recreating the marshlands should be a top priority. However, Major General Tim Cross, the top Brit in the operation, says the marshes are "an issue for the future Iraqi government and the people of this region themselves". And there's the rub.

Birdwatching isn't big in Iraq, and nor, for that matter, are the Marsh Arabs who, like troublesome minorities elsewhere, are considered something of a nuisance. Draining the marshes was not an unpopular move. Saddam promised that land would be reclaimed for agriculture, and some of the land released does now produce wheat. The farmers who have benefited will not want to be dispossessed. Yet recreating the marshes, 90 per cent of which have now disappeared, would mean relocating not just the farmers but hundreds of thousands of other people as well. It would also involve redesigning the water system at huge cost.

It would increase pressure on fragile river systems and might be fiercely resented in Kurdish areas upstream. It might also provoke difficulties for Iraq with Turkey and Syria, which would probably have to release water as well. And there are oil reserves under the marshes which might produce three million barrels a year.

Still, the Marsh Arabs want their marshes back, or so their clan leaders say. However, only a minority of their 400,000 followers remain in the area. Most of the rest, if they are not dead, are now dispersed through the rest of Iraq or over the border in Iran. What's more, there must be real doubt about whether the younger generation would want to return to a way of life which, though picturesque to outsiders, was punishingly hard on those who had to endure it.

The recreation of the Mesopotamian marshes, if it is to happen at all, will need to be an imperial project, imposed on the Iraqi people by their enlightened conquerors. America and Britain (in whose sector the marshes lie) have the levers to make it happen: whatever form of administration Iraq ends up with, the country will be desperately dependent on outside aid for many years to come. But should the liberators champion biodiversity and vulnerable minorities? Or democracy?