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Gun Smuggling in the New Marshlands

Kholoud Ramzi
It never occurred to the displaced people of Iraq’s southern marshlands when they fled to Hawra village in the province of Karbala that their new home would so quickly gain notoriety.
23.02.2009  |  Karbala

The village, which people have named Thailand following the presence of Thai troops in the post-U.S. invasion period, was long known as a barren area of factories and wasteland.

But, today it has become a “qajaq” center, the local term used to describe arms smuggling.

The story began when a number of displaced people from the southern marshes took refuge in Karbala after U.S. troops entered Iraq in 2003. Many of these internally displaced people headed to factory compounds, known for their empty lands, and transformed them into marshland-like zones. People built small cane houses in the middle of empty areas surrounding water and lived off herding buffalos, fishing and collecting salt from the small marshes nearby.

However, just as Iraq’s southern marshlands were famous in the days of Saddam for arms smuggling, so this custom also moved to Karbala and the new marshlands became a centre of an illicit trade fuelled by the violent conditions tearing across the country.

Quickly the village also gained a reputation as the “the village of political parties,” with many inhabitants joining Islamic parties and militias. Security authorities in Karbala say that the village became a stronghold of the Jund al-Sama’ group (Soldiers of Heaven), which fought government forces near Najaf city in 2006. More that twelve people from the village were arrested on charges of joining the organization.

But, even as guns and politics became ever more prominent the majority of the few hundred people living in the village say they shunned the arms trade and politics and concentrated on survival through their animals and fishing.

Umm Ali, who fled the southern marshes and came to Hawra when it was first created, said that like many others she herds buffalos as she used to do when living in the original marshes. Her only aim now, she says, is survival for herself and her two sons.

The village leaders admit that there are a number of arms smugglers in the village but they assert that the majority of smugglers come from outside the village and that they only pay sporadic visits to sell arms.

Police checkpoints deployed across the province have not succeeded in preventing the arms trade. Security forces often send patrols to Hawra and other nearby villages following reports of illicit activity and groups, but rarely do these patrols successfully track down the perpetrators.

Aqeel al-Khazali, the governor of Karbala province, told Niqash that “there are security problems in the villages because people from these villages do not live a stable life… Security forces have started to concentrate their efforts on areas considered as dangerous, but arms smugglers have their own ways of smuggling weapons to other areas,” he said.

Now the government is encouraging people to return home to the original and reinvigorated marshlands. Hasan al-Sari, the minister for matters relating to the marshes, told Niqash that the state wants people to re-inhabit the abandoned lands. However, al-Sari acknowledged that most of these areas still lack electricity and drinking water and schools are still only located in very distant areas.

Some, like Umm Ali, say they will never return, pointing to memories of Saddam’s repression and his destruction of the marshlands after the Shiite uprising in Iraq in 1991 and their subsequent use as a rebel refuge.

“I am used to living in this village and I will not go back to the marshes in the south,” she said.

Today the village of Hawra faces an uncertain future. While the government seeks to re-establish law and order and move people home, arms smuggling remains profitable and active, threatening to destroy the simple livelihood that the new marshlands has provided for those seeking a better future.