06 January 2004
We were back in Marsh Arab country yesterday, Haidar and I, scouring the country west of the infamous Hawr al-Hawizah marshes where Saddam first used gas against his Iranian enemies.
We stopped on the ribbon of torn asphalt where, almost two decades ago, Iranian tanks crossed the main highway from Baghdad to Basra.
The Tigris was drifting past the small village of Al-Zahra and we'd followed a track in the hope of finding some Marsh Arabs still living in their reed huts. Instead, the track ran out at the edge of the river - you could see it restarting on the other bank - and two men came up to us in gowns and keffiyeh scarves, quite directly, to ask us what we were doing. We told them and they looked at us with hard eyes.
"We are Marsh Arabs," the younger man said. "We used to live in reed houses until Saddam dried out the land and now we live in Al-Zahra. It's just made of concrete and mud."
And the track? Jabar Khaddam Malzum - the younger man had given his name in a very formal way - said that it had been built by the Iraqi army during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, that the river had long ago washed away the supports. "There was another bridge over there," he said. "It was the front line on the other side of the river. That's where they used the gas."
So we looked across at the flat, dun-coloured landscape beneath the lowering winter clouds, much as I had done - almost 20 years ago - from the Iranian side of the line. "We still find the dead," Jabar said. "We found a group of dead soldiers the other day - Iraqis and Iranians all mixed up together ..."
So what did they do with them, Haidar asked? There's no longer a Red Cross in Baghdad where you can report their identities. In Iraq, no one any longer cares about the war before the war before last. "We left the bodies where they were and pushed the earth over them again," Jabar said. "What else could we do?"
Iraq is haunted by its wars. Just up the road is a partially burnt power station, bombed by the Americans in the 1990-91 Gulf conflict and, a mile or so further up this grim highway, a cremated T-55 tank, victim of last March's Anglo-American invasion - although some of these old behemoths have now been taken away on trucks. "Many are still here, even the Iranian tanks from the 1980s," Jabar said. Then the older man - he never introduced himself, but he looked like Jabar's father - pointed to the gas-soaked fields of Hawizah. "We heard the guns every night," he said. "We heard them every night, every week and month, year after year."
A British Land Rover patrol, followed by a Warrior armoured vehicle, hummed down the dual carriageway behind us. Did those young soldiers know what had happened here around the time of their birth? Yet even this last war has not ended.
On the walls of the great, shabby, sewage-stinking city, someone has written in impeccable English a leading question. "Where are our requirements - petrol, medicine and other services?" I liked the "requirements" bit, it had a kind of official ring to it. The same wall-scribbler might have asked where all those old, blackened tanks are being taken. Many were hit by depleted uranium shells and are still contaminated.
Well, some are being taken to a huge steel plant in Basra where, so Basrans say, they are melted down into prefabricated bridges, litter bins, even pots and pans. It makes sense. Maybe Iraqi housewives who live through nights of power cuts can now spot their household utensils glowing quietly in the darkness of the kitchen.