For Iraqi Farmers, A Harvest of Hope

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- Inside the festival hall, on long tables covered with white cloth, Aboud Ahdim Abbas Mohammad saw a glimpse of the future: baskets filled with different kinds of ripe, delicious dates. They held the twin promise of reviving an ancient industry and Iraq's devastated economy.

But once outside, Mohammad wondered whether Iraq would ever realize such aspirations. Violence had emptied nearby villages filled with date farmers. His cousins had been slain on the way to sell their harvest. Gunmen had recently ambushed him. He shot his way out to safety, but not before a bullet rammed into his left arm.

"They don't want a new Iraq based on freedom and a country that produces," said Mohammad, 56, who looked regal with bronzed skin, a pepper gray moustache and a white and black checkered tribal head scarf.

Across a volatile landscape brimming with militias and insurgents, farmers like Mohammad are trying to restore the glory days when Iraq produced about 30 percent of the world's supply of dates. The fruit has been a symbol of daily life since the time of the civilizations of Babylon and Sumer, more than 5,000 years ago.

In the calculus of preventing Iraq's slide toward civil war, reconstructing Iraq's economy is a top priority. And dates are Iraq's second-biggest export, after oil. Revitalizing the industry could help reduce sectarian tensions by creating thousands of jobs while generating revenue to rebuild Iraq, improve security and lessen the country's dependence on U.S. reconstruction dollars.

Now, after years of neglect, war and sanctions, the date industry is showing signs of recovery, partly through U.S. efforts. Farmers are being introduced to market-oriented capitalism after years of depending on state subsidies under the government of Saddam Hussein.

In May, helicopters contracted by the U.S. military sprayed thousands of acres of date palm trees across Iraq with pesticides to eradicate insects that had caused major damage. After the 2003 invasion, security concerns prevented large-scale aerial spraying, Iraq's small crop-dusting helicopter fleet was destroyed, and looters stole pesticides from the Agricultural Ministry warehouses.

On Monday, the fruits of the spraying campaign were displayed at a date festival in Baqubah, an insurgent stronghold 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. In a high-ceilinged, brightly lit room, farmers proudly showcased more than 60 varieties of dates in baskets made from palm fronds. Outside, dignitaries sat under a tan tent, eating dates and plain yogurt.

This year the date harvest in Iraq's Diyala province -- Baqubah is its capital -- is expected to be about 70,000 tons -- "50 percent better than last year," said Abbas al-Tamimi, the provincial director general of agriculture. Sold below production cost under Hussein, dates are now sold competitively in local markets and exported to neighboring Jordan and Dubai, he said.

Yet tight security cast a shadow over the date festival. Eight U.S. Humvees were parked outside, as Iraqi security forces guarded the street. There were empty seats in the tent. A sudden burst of gunfire outside the compound prompted heavily armed U.S. soldiers to run out, poised for action. It was not an attack.

Attacks in Diyala have surged, from about 200 each month before the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra to just under 500 this summer, according to U.S. military statistics. The province is especially vulnerable to sectarian violence, given its mix of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations. In recent weeks, there have been assassinations of leaders, kidnappings and mosque bombings.

Tamimi, dressed in a blue suit and yellow tie, said date farmers who populated several villages were forced to leave "because of sectarian tensions."

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