The Iraqi government assault on the Marsh Arabs



This Briefing Paper details the ongoing campaign by the Ba'athist government of Iraq against the Ma'dan or so-called Marsh Arabs-the mostly Shi'a Muslim population that inhabits the marshlands (al-ahwar) in southern Iraq around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Numbering some 250,000 people as recently as 1991, the Marsh Arabs today are believed to number fewer than 40,000 in their ancestral homeland. Many have been arrested, "disappeared," or executed; most have become refugees abroad or are internally displaced in Iraq as a result of Iraqi oppression. The population and culture of the Marsh Arabs, who have resided continuously in the marshlands for more than 5,000 years, are being eradicated.

In December 2002, Human Rights Watch published a policy paper, Justice for Iraq,1 detailing some of the serious crimes perpetrated in Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s. It urged the establishment of an international tribunal to bring to justice the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. This Briefing Paper focuses on one such crime.

For more than two decades, Shi'a Muslims across Iraq, who collectively form at least 60 percent of the Iraqi population, have been subjected to a violent government campaign of persecution, the authorities fearing that Iraqi Shi'a might seek to follow the example set by Shi'a in Iran.

Starting shortly after the end of the Gulf war in 1991, Marsh Arabs have been singled out for even more direct assault: mass arrests, enforced "disappearances," torture, and execution of political opponents have been accompanied by ecologically catastrophic drainage of the marshlands and the large-scale and systematic forcible transfer of part of the local population.

The repression against the Marsh Arabs since 1988 has been motivated by a combination of factors. In addition to the fact that Marsh Arabs are Shi'a, Iraqi authorities have targeted them because the remote terrain of the marshlands provided refuge for political opponents of the regime and because, in 1991, Marsh Arabs themselves took part in rebellion against the Baghdad government. The marshlands also contain great wealth: they are today recognized as the site of some the richest oil deposits in the country.

Geographically and administratively the marshlands had remained relatively isolated from central government control until the end of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 - 1988. The forced resettlement plan and brutal counterinsurgency campaign begun by the government in the early 1990's prompted the United Nations special rapporteur on Iraq in 1992 to voice his concerns directly to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council failed to act, leaving the United States, United Kingdom and France to impose an air exclusion zone in southern Iraq. This however, did not prevent Iraqi government forces from conducting ground operations backed by helicopters over the next few years. As evidence of the widespread destruction and human suffering grew with the number of refugees fleeing the area, the U.N. special rapporteur urged the U.N. to place human rights monitors on the ground - a request he repeated every year until his resignation in 1999. Both the Commission for Human Rights and the General Assembly adopted resolutions endorsing his recommendation and requesting the U.N. secretary-general to authorize the necessary funding, but it was never done. Iraq, needless to say, ignored the U.N.

Human Rights Watch believes that many of the acts of the Iraqi government's systematic repression of the Marsh Arabs constitute a crime against humanity. The crimes were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of the Marsh Arabs during the decade of the 1990s.2 The attack involved the multiple commissions of acts in furtherance of state policy. The underlying crimes include:

  • Murder of thousands of unarmed civilians following the abortive March 1991 uprising, through summary execution and the indiscriminate bombardment and shelling of residential areas in towns and villages in the vicinity of Basra, al-Nasiriyya, al-'Amara and across the marshes region;

  • Forcible population transfer-coercive expulsion of part of the Marsh Arab population from their native villages to settlements on dry land on the outskirts of the marshes and along major highways to facilitate government control over them;

  • Arbitrary and prolonged imprisonment of thousands who had been arrested during and in the aftermath of military bombardment of residential areas in the marshes, including civilians and others suspected of anti-government activities;

  • Torture of Marsh Arab detainees held in government custody, in order to extract information from them, as punishment, and as a means to spread fear among the local population;

  • Enforced disappearances of many of the Marsh Arabs arrested during the 1990s, whose fate and whereabouts remain unresolved to date;

  • Persecution of the Marsh Arabs through the intentional and severe deprivation of their fundamental rights on the basis of their religious and political identity as a group.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Iraq to immediately release Marsh Arabs who remain in detention; to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those who "disappeared" following arrest; and to compensate the victims and the families of those who were arbitrarily held, tortured, "disappeared," or executed. The perpetrators of the crimes against the Marsh Arabs should be brought to justice.


1 Human Rights Watch, "Justice for Iraq," A Human Rights Watch Policy Paper, December 17, 2002.

2For crimes against humanity, the attack need only be "widespread or systematic," not both, as is the case here.

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