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Marsh flooding brings new life to Iraq's 'Garden of Eden'

A woman rows a traditional boat in an Iraqi marsh

The lush marshes of Iraq are regarded by some as the original Garden of Eden, but they were drained and decimated by Saddam Hussein. Now a major restoration programme has seen people and wildlife return to one of the world's most famous wetlands.

Ahead of me stretches a channel through the reeds - Phragmites reeds that grow in the marshes near my home in England.

But unlike those at home, these are over 4m tall and seem to reach the sky above me as we gently glide through the avenue of still water they majestically flank.

We are punting in a Mashoof, the common small canoe of the marshes used for centuries for transportation and the collection of reeds.

I am in southern Iraq, in the Marshes of Mesopotamia - the Central Marshes to be precise. It is a paradise for wildlife and home of the Ma'dan, the Marsh Arabs.

For a few days I have been exploring this wetland paradise with my good friend Mudhafar, one of Iraq's top bird conservationists.

Our puntsman, Omar, is a lanky youth of about 18. Wearing a long, flowing thawb and loosely tied head scarf, he moves nimbly around the boat in bare feet to manoeuvre us through the narrow, reed-fringed passages.

Whenever I turn on the radio or TV in UK the news coming out of Iraq is rarely good but my visit was to help celebrate a happy event.

Image caption The mudheif, a town hall constructed from reeds, was used for a reading of the Koran
Image caption Iraq's plentiful wetlands were decimated in the 1990s by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War
Image caption A Green Festival was attended by locals to celebrate marsh restoration, including a man dressed in bottles to highlight the issue of pollution
Image caption Teams of children competed in an organised litter-picking competition along the edge of the water
Image caption Women took part in a race using traditional boats known as Mashoofs as a large crowd looked on

A wildlife conservation organisation, of which Mudhafar is the bird man, and which would not have been allowed under the tight control of Saddam, is holding a Green Festival to celebrate the restoration of one of the world's great wetlands.

Drained to less than 10% of their former size under Saddam's regime, these vast marshes are coming to life again. Through the actions of environmentally-conscious and brave Arabs, the huge embankments have been breached, allowing the water to flow back.

Now at least half have been successfully re-flooded. The wildlife and Marsh Arabs have returned.

Overhead a Pied Kingfisher hovers, searching for fish. In the reeds I can hear the song of the endangered Basra Reed Warbler, while on the water a group of birds takes off - four globally-threatened Marbled Ducks.

Along the banks of the Euphrates, that together with the Tigris is the lifeblood of the marshes, throngs are gathering. The festival is underway.

First in the mudheif - a cathedral-like building made of reeds - the town hall of the Marsh Arab sheiks, there is a reading from the Koran followed by the Iraq National Anthem, then come the speeches, music by children and poetry readings.

On the river, the first boat race ever held in the marshes is underway: six Meshoofs, each with a single woman rower wearing a black Abaya, battle for first place.

There were loud cheers from the crowd, which was more than 1,000-strong as the winner crossed the line.

A covered grandstand had been erected on the river bank and here sat sheiks in their full regalia, whilst at the edges noisy children in jeans and T-shirts gathered - one young boy wearing a Chelsea shirt with Lampard written across the back.

I asked one of the spectators, Mohammed, if he had bet on the race. He grinned widely and said "probably next year" - so perhaps it will become an annual event.

Along the Euphrates bank raced several groups of children - some dressed in blue, others in green - and each carrying a plastic bin liner. This was a competition to see who could collect the most rubbish.

Ahead of them walked two masked men - one wearing a suit of plastic bottles, the other a suit of tin cans - to symbolise the rubbish problem and its effect on water pollution.

All of this is against a background of displays about the importance of the marshes, which are now well on the way to recovery following such devastating drainage.

Then the highlight of the day: the arrival along the river of the Tarada, powered by the oars of three sheikhs.

This large canoe with a graceful pointed prow was the war vessel of the marshes - an iconic symbol of pride.

With their draining it disappeared from the reed beds of Mesopotamia. Today was the first time a Tarada had been seen in the marshes for over half a century.

For my friend Mudhafar, who has been studying the wildlife and culture of these vast wetlands for 25 years, it was clearly an emotional moment. He never thought he would see this boat again and I was glad to share his emotions with him.

Next time I hear bad news about Iraq I will remember this day and the courage of the people who love their heritage.

They really wanted to make a difference and so made possible the rehabilitation of these wild reed beds - these world famous wetlands.

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