Greens AWOL on Iraq: Why the Silence on the Marsh Arabs?

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the National Review Online and was reprinted in its entirety by the United Nations Environment Programme.

A few months ago, prior to the liberation of Iraq, we ran a piece on Saddam Hussein’s longtime ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. It got quite a bit of attention. It was published and republished by many sources. We were pleased, especially because the point was that Saddam’s campaign had been an “unnoticed genocide.”

Since then, even with Operation Iraqi Freedom weeks past, several media outlets have picked up the story. That’s good. Even with the war now well over, the Marsh Arabs situation is finally getting coverage. It remains both a human and an environmental tragedy. It is also suddenly a hot story because U.S. personnel are now in the marshes, trying to figure out if the land can be salvaged.

Yet while the major media have woken up, the environmental movement continues its rather stunning silence. That silence was particularly noticeable during President Bush’s campaign against Saddam. Now, the big “unnoticed” story is not so much the plight of the Marsh Arabs as the extraordinary hypocrisy of the environmental movement, which is growing worse by the day.

To be sure, the plight of the Marsh Arabs — or the Madan, as they are also known — was once front-page material for environmental watchdogs. Those who regularly protest environmental destruction have long known about Saddam’s campaign of literal mass destruction against the Madan. The primary weapon Hussein used against the Madan was a water-diversion program known as the Third River Project. The idea behind it was to drain the life-giving marshlands of southern Iraq, on which the Marsh Arabs depend for their very existence.

Over the last couple of years, readily available satellite photos have shown the formerly lush green areas of the marshes now an arid brown; they have decreased by about 95 percent. Several thousand marsh dwellers have also reportedly been killed since 1991, and hundreds of thousands made homeless. The United Nations reports that the Madan are “essentially now a refugee population.” As a direct result of the Third River Project, the U.N. concluded, the 5,000-year-old culture of the Madan was in “serious jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.” The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently issued a statement reminding the public that over two years have lapsed since they first “drew the world’s attention to the plight of the marshlands.”

Prior to Saddam’s systematic draining of the wetlands, this region was an uncorrupted wilderness containing pristine marshes filled with thousands of species of animals, birds, and fish. The U.N. called it one of the world’s “most significant wetlands” and a “biodiversity centre of global importance.” Most Biblical scholars believe this area to be the site of the “Garden of Eden.”

The environmental devastation in Iraq is undeniable; many have compared it to the destruction of the Amazon rain forests. Former vice president Al Gore expressed outrage over the disaster.

Today, very little remains of the former paradise near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This environmental catastrophe — which the U.N. has termed “one of the Earth’s major and most thoughtless environmental disasters” — has killed not only the indigenous flora and fauna, but also many Madan.

Again, the environmental movement knows about this — and used to complain. More recently, however, they have been oddly silent. When President Bush marshaled his list of Saddam’s crimes — as part of the public-relations war to rally the world against the Iraqi regime — he didn’t get any help from the environmental movement. To the best of our knowledge, no statements of support were offered by the likes of Greenpeace or other such groups, urging the president to rescue the Iraqi marshlands.

To the contrary, many members of these organizations joined the peace movement, where they marched in antiwar rallies organized by far-left groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R. and Not in Our Name. At just one event, Reuters reported that “more than 100 people from groups like Greenpeace and International ANSWER” gathered in March at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., to protest the war.

In a January 27, 2003, press release, Greenpeace proudly announced: “The Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, blocked the departure of U.K. military supply vessels heading for the Gulf.” Greenpeace activists aggressively engaged in “non-violent direct action” as “part of the global campaign to prevent a military attack on Iraq.” Nor were the environmentalists’ actions limited to physical protests. They also took their crusade to the World Wide Web. Case in point: Greenpeace International.

One is hard-pressed to find any mention of the marshland destruction on Greenpeace International’s website. In fact, we scanned the headlines of every press release Greenpeace International posted on its site from November 2001 to May 2003. There was not one reference to Saddam’s ruthless environmental behavior. Of the 300 press releases published in this time period, the only ones that mention Iraq are filled with antiwar rhetoric. These press releases are peppered with triumphant accounts of Greenpeace’s “pacifist” activities, yet not one of them decries the actions of Iraq’s eco-monster.

The antiwar theme was readily apparent on Greenpeace International’s website, which prominently featured a list of five reasons for opposing war. The primary reason was a paradox of mind-blowing proportions: The conflict in Iraq, Greenpeace insisted, would “have devastating human and environmental consequences.”

Actually, it would seem that the past 12 years of appeasement of Saddam by the international community brought overwhelmingly “devastating human and environmental consequences” in the form of the Third River Project. Just ask the Madan.

To leave Saddam in place was to allow an eco-tyrant to continue his slaughter of the planet (in addition to its inhabitants, of course). It was Saddam who ordered 700 oil wells set ablaze in Kuwait, and who unleashed a deliberate spill that discharged over 20 times as much oil as the iniquitous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Still, there is good news. Efforts are now afoot to try to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands. A project known as “Eden Again” is hoping to regenerate 20,000 square kilometers of former marshland by carefully re-flooding the area.

Why is this sudden restoration now underway? The answer, of course, is because George W. Bush — despite fierce protests all around him, including by environmentalists in the antiwar movement — opted to use force to disarm Saddam. That led to the liberation of Iraq, which has now made this last-minute attempt to rescue the marshes and their ancient people possible. This would not be feasible if the world had followed the course recommended by Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan, Hans Blix, the Germans, the Russians — or the environmental movement. All of them advocated the disarmament of Saddam through negotiations, not liberation; their approach called for Saddam and his regime to remain in power. Only President Bush’s strategy could have brought about the liberation of Iraq — and, subsequently, the liberation of the marshes and the Madan.

If anything, the environmental movement should thank the Bush administration for liberating the environment from the tyrannical activity of an oppressive eco-dictator. George W. Bush ought to be the movement’s Man of the Year. But don’t expect an announcement from Greenpeace anytime soon.