KHIDR, Iraq (AFP) — The Sunni Arab sheikh smiled happily as a torch in a darkened room lit up a water tank teeming with pin-sized larvae. Now that the Al-Qaeda big fish have fled, the carp small fry are thriving.
"Last year Al-Qaeda prevented us from doing any fish farming," said Sheikh Jaffar Hussein al-Massudi whose village of Khidr, about 60 kilometres (36 miles) south of Baghdad, is slap-bang in the middle of the so-called Triangle of Death near the major town of Iskandiriyah in Babil province.
"Now they're gone the ponds are being restored, the pumps serviced and the breeding programmes started again," said the sheikh after visiting hatcheries where eggs milked from females are fertilised, hatched into fry, reared to fingerlings and then stocked in dams fed by the Euphrates.
With the season short, the fish farmers of Khidr are scrambling to get their dams restored and restocked with common, grass and silver carp as quickly as possible.
The illuminated fry now dancing in the torchlight represent a good first step in a delicate three-month process that it is hoped will end with fat fish landing on dinner tables in Baghdad.
Carp has been a major part of the Iraqi diet for centuries -- especially when grilled or smoked on an open fire to produce a delicacy known as Masguf.
During the former regime, many fish farms, because they are lucrative, were taken over by the state and given to members of Saddam Hussein's family.
With Saddam's ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion, the farms fell back into the hands of private farmers.
In Khidr, however, the freedom was short-lived.
"Al-Qaeda took over the farmlands around November 2006," said Sheikh Jaffar. "They not only stole and sold all the fish but they smashed the water pumps, causing the water to stagnate and remaining fish stocks to die."
He said that among those who took up residence in Khidr, with its lush green fields, date palms, fish ponds and fruit orchards, was Omar al-Baghdadi, a top leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who the US military says is a mere "cyber-creation" designed to give the group an Iraqi face.
But Sheikh Jaffar, a gently spoken man in his forties with a bushy moustache, insists Baghdadi was among senior jihadists who set up in Khidr and launched attacks that earned the Sunni area its "Triangle of Death" notoriety.
"For some time he used the farms here as his headquarters," said the sheikh, adding that all but one or two families in Khidr fled the area when the Al-Qaeda fighters began a killing spree. He too had whisked his family away.
Captain James Hart, of the US army's 3/7 Infantry Regiment, was among the American and Iraqi troops who finally put the jihadists to flight after a two-month intensive fight which ended early February.
"Until just a few months ago this was a very dangerous area," Hart said. "Al-Qaeda was in complete control. If anyone came here they would be executed. One of the farmhouses had been turned into a torture chamber."
He said much unexploded ordnance left behind by the jihadists still lies concealed in the fields and canals.
Two locals who had joined an anti-Qaeda "Awakening" front in the district had been blown up by hidden munitions in recent weeks, he said.
According to Sheikh Jaffar, about 100 of the 130 families who had fled Khidr are now back and farming again.
He said that with farmers in adjoining districts also starting to return it had been decided to pool resources to help revitalise the carp industry, a major provider of employment.
A fish farmers' association was formed in February with the sheikh at the helm and with the backing of funds and expertise provided by the US State Department and USAID.
Colonel John Nye, a senior State Department agriculturalist who heads a team of experts working with the association, believes the time, effort and money is well spent.
His North Babil Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team of agriculturalists, economists and a US fish farming expert has doled out micro-grants ranging between 700 and 1,000 dollars to 64 lower income fish farmers in the Iskandiriyah area who recently returned to their lands.
"Most of them are using the money to restore and restock their ponds, to repair their pumps and to buy feed," he said with satisfaction after a weekend tour of some of the farms in the project.
"Each farmer employs about five people, so it is a win-win situation for all if the farms are quickly restored," he said.
Farmer Hamid Bashir, 60, a rake-thin man with grizzled beard and dressed in navy blue robes, says his main concern is getting enough feed for his fish.
"We are using wheat because the feed is too expensive," he told members of Nye's team, referring to a nutritious mash of barley, soya, corn and wheat specially designed to fatten fish, which the farmers' association is beginning to produce.
"With the feed my fish will grow to one kilo within a month but with only wheat it will take a lot longer," said Bashir, whose fish are already at about 500 grams (one pound).
The American experts promised to see what they could do to help. With a goal of seeing the first carp ready for market by early June, they are keen to do what they can to expedite the process.
And with much riding on the project, this is not one they will allow to get away.
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