What the Americans will find isn't so much a challenging engineering project as a colossal crime scene, a wasteland monument to human cruelty and survival.
"The destruction of Iraq's marshes involved a genocide," said Emma Nicholson, a British parliamentarian whose group, Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees, has been trumpeting the plight of the region for years. "The best way I could describe it is an open-air Auschwitz."
The Iraqi regime's assault on the Mesopotamian Marshes is a well-documented tragedy, and it began with the Shiite rebellion against Hussein that erupted on the heels of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Paying a terrible price
The Marsh Arabs, a 5,000-year-old tribe of fishermen-hunters who lived on reed islands and paddled swamp waterways in elegant canoes, joined the revolt wholeheartedly, and when it failed they paid a terrible price.
Bombed, shot, imprisoned and poisoned by the regime--Iraqi helicopters reportedly dropped pesticides into marshland lakes to kill fish, a tribal staple--the Marsh Arabs' population in Iraq has dwindled from 250,000 to 40,000, human-rights groups say. Tens of thousands of the nomads now languish in Iranian refugee camps.
Their vast wetlands, crawling with deserters and rebels, fared no better.
According to the UN Environment Program, 7,000 square miles, or a staggering 93 percent, of the Mesopotamian Marshes were bled dry by Hussein's engineers between 1991 and 2000. Gone are the 1 billion migratory birds--flamingoes, storks, cranes--that used to stop over on flights between Asia and Africa.
Gone are the 500-pound fish that tribesmen used to haul to market in trucks. Vanished, too, probably, are endangered species such as the smooth-coated otter.
So thorough was the destruction, ranked by the UN as "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters," that coalition troops hardly knew they were driving across a former swamp larger than the Everglades when they invaded Iraq from Kuwait in March.
Marsh Arab villages still cling to some of those roads. They look like Arab villages anywhere, including the middle of the Sahara. The only clues to their aquatic origins lie in stately council houses, with cathedral-like spires, constructed entirely of bleached, rotting reeds.
"We broke the dams when the Iraqi army left," said Qasim Shalgan Lafta, 58, a former fisherman whose village sits marooned, along with a few cracked canoes, in a landscape that looks like the Utah Badlands. "We want to teach our children how to fish, how to move on the water again." . . .
"Thanks be to Allah for giving our water back!" declared grinning old Mutashir, one of thousands of nomads displaced by Hussein's cataclysmic reclamation projects. His dingy robes flapping about him, he hugged himself with his scrawny arms and added, "Thanks be to George Bush!"