War's weapons leave Iraqi farmers free, but impoverished and unable to farm

By Salaam al-Jubouri

MEHDA'IN, Iraq, June 19, 2003 (ENS): Twenty miles south of Baghdad, Mehda'in is a typical Iraqi farming community - a once tranquil town whose way of life has suffered double as a result of the U.S. led war to topple Saddam Hussein. Both the Iraqi and the U.S. armies have trampled this land. Both have littered it with weapons. Both have targeted the homes of simple farm folk.

"Farmers here can't work their land any more," said Salaheddin Hussein, the Imam of Ibrahim Al-Khileal mosque. "One agricultural season has already been lost and already poor farmers are facing severe financial problems."

The tragedy of Mehda'in is repeated all over Iraq, where agriculture accounts for up to eight percent of the economy and employs about 25 percent of the population. After two decades of neglect, and a decade of sanctions, Iraq's grain production this season is expected to be less than half that of 1990.

The United Nations has appealed for $1.3 billion to provide food to Iraq during the next six months, making Iraq's 24 million people the beneficiaries of the largest food aid program in the world.

Despite the urgency of revitalizing agriculture in the reconstruction effort for Iraq, the U.S. Agency for International Development appears to be giving the sector short shrift. It has signed contracts for capital construction, seaport and airport administration, education, public health, local governance, and logistical and personnel support, but has taken no initiatives yet on agriculture.

Several weeks before war was joined in March, the Iraqi army established military positions on farmland in Mehda'in. Fa'ik Karim Mahmoud, a 30 year old farmer, was forced to leave his farm after military ordnance was placed amid the fruit and vegetables he grew.

"I stopped working on my farm three months ago because the Iraqi army dug trenches on my land and put bombs in them," said Mahmoud. "When it left, it left missiles, small rocket launchers and grenades on the farm. Until these weapons are safely disarmed and removed, I can't irrigate the land or grow anything on it."

Another Mehda'in farmer, Abdel Bassit Daoud Salmon, said members of the Fedayeen of Saddam, a militia established by Saddam Hussein's son Odey, took over homes in Mehda'in before the war and forced their owners out. When they returned, they found their property burned and looted.

Once the war began, and Saddam's troops began to fall back, it was the turn of the U.S. Army to dig in to Mehda'in.

"American tanks entered my farm and destroyed everything," said Mahmoud. "They shot up the harvesting machines and shot at my house. The shooting broke all my windows. The heat of the sun makes all the bombs that are lying around extremely dangerous - especially for my children, who play around them."

American forces took over Omar Adel Salmon's farm in Mehda'in more than two months ago. They are still there.

"I became homeless when my house was bombed by American forces and everything - electrical appliances, furniture, clothes, even money - was burned," said Salmon, 35. "My farm was transformed into a war zone. I am a victim of two armies - the American and Iraqi armies. A victim of the war. What sin did I commit to suffer such damage? I played no part in the war."

Asked to reply to the accusations made against them, a group of American soldiers on one of the farms in Mehda'in - a farm now graced with two American tanks - said only their officer was authorized to comment. This reporter waited, but the officer did not appear.

Salaheddin Hussein, the local Imam, said agriculture is suffering all over the region because American tanks have damaged irrigation systems. He said the town's river had been polluted, and its irrigation system further damaged by effluent from filters used by U.S. forces. Low flying American helicopters created fear and confusion among children.

"We are all suffering from a severe lack of drinking water," he said. " We buy one cubic meter of water for 4000 dinars" - about three dollars, a large amount for impoverished Iraqis - "and even this is not exactly clean."

Hussein urged the U.S. forces to provide people with drinking water and fix the water containers which American tanks and other vehicles destroyed. He also called for the establishment of a health center to treat civilians injured because of the war, and for compensation for families those who have suffered losses.

{Salaam al-Jubouri is a student and contributor to "The Iraqi Witness," a Baghdad daily produced largely by students. This report is published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

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