Local authorities in Kerbala, a southern province of Iraq about 120km south of the capital, Baghdad, have destroyed thousands of hectares of agricultural land, putting dozens of peasant families at risk of being displaced, according to residents.
"The farmers had been warned since last September to leave their farmland as plans have been drawn up by local authorities to turn the area into a residential one for the families of victims of the previous regime," Amal al-Hir, head of Kerbala Agricultural Directorate, said.
According to al-Hir, the late former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1991 granted 10-year contracts to peasant farmers in a desert area that he designated as a new green belt for Kerbala.
Facing international economic sanctions after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam re-allocated this land in a bid to expand the country’s agricultural areas, al-Hir said. Within a few years, peasant farmers transformed the barren land near Kerbala into fertile farms growing a range of produce, such as tomatoes, wheat, fruits and potatoes.
"But when these contracts expired in 2001, these people continued farming the land and ignored all official warnings. In September 2007, local authorities warned them for the last time," al-Hir said.
Mohammed Hassan al-Hilali, 55, was among about 30 peasants who witnessed government bulldozers destroy their agricultural land.
"We are not against helping the families of Saddam's victims but this should not be at the expense of the suffering of other families," al-Hilali said.
"Compensation should be paid to us, whether in the form of money or another piece of land to cultivate. Otherwise we are going to join the country's army of unemployed and displaced persons," he added. The unemployed father-of-six now lives with a relative in a Kerbala suburb.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 2.4 million people have been driven from their homes to other parts of Iraq since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. In the same period, an estimated 2.2 million Iraqis fled to neighbouring countries, largely Syria and Jordan.
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