US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.
The stumps of palm trees, some 70 years old, protrude from the brown earth scoured by the bulldozers beside the road at Dhuluaya, a small town 50 miles north of Baghdad. Local women were yesterday busily bundling together the branches of the uprooted orange and lemon trees and carrying then back to their homes for firewood.
Nusayef Jassim, one of 32 farmers who saw their fruit trees destroyed, said: "They told us that the resistance fighters hide in our farms, but this is not true. They didn't capture anything. They didn't find any weapons."
Other farmers said that US troops had told them, over a loudspeaker in Arabic, that the fruit groves were being bulldozed to punish the farmers for not informing on the resistance which is very active in this Sunni Muslim district.
"They made a sort of joke against us by playing jazz music while they were cutting down the trees," said one man. Ambushes of US troops have taken place around Dhuluaya. But Sheikh Hussein Ali Saleh al-Jabouri, a member of a delegation that went to the nearby US base to ask for compensation for the loss of the fruit trees, said American officers described what had happened as "a punishment of local people because 'you know who is in the resistance and do not tell us'." What the Israelis had done by way of collective punishment of Palestinians was now happening in Iraq, Sheikh Hussein added.
The destruction of the fruit trees took place in the second half of last month but, like much which happens in rural Iraq, word of what occurred has only slowly filtered out. The destruction of crops took place along a kilometre-long stretch of road just after it passes over a bridge.
Farmers say that 50 families lost their livelihoods, but a petition addressed to the coalition forces in Dhuluaya pleading in erratic English for compensation, lists only 32 people. The petition says: "Tens of poor families depend completely on earning their life on these orchards and now they became very poor and have nothing and waiting for hunger and death."
The children of one woman who owned some fruit trees lay down in front of a bulldozer but were dragged away, according to eyewitnesses who did not want to give their names. They said that one American soldier broke down and cried during the operation. When a reporter from the newspaper Iraq Today attempted to take a photograph of the bulldozers at work a soldier grabbed his camera and tried to smash it. The same paper quotes Lt Col Springman, a US commander in the region, as saying: "We asked the farmers several times to stop the attacks, or to tell us who was responsible, but the farmers didn't tell us."
Informing US troops about the identity of their attackers would be extremely dangerous in Iraqi villages, where most people are related and everyone knows each other. The farmers who lost their fruit trees all belong to the Khazraji tribe and are unlikely to give information about fellow tribesmen if they are, in fact, attacking US troops.
Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: "It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth."