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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

10% of Iraqis Depend On Dates

AL-OTAYFIYAH, Iraq -- A bountiful date harvest is one of the few good things about being in Iraq during the searing month of August. But not this year.

The oppressive heat that routinely pushes temperatures above 49 degrees Celsius is responsible for Iraq's famous date crop. But this year the irrigation channels are but dusty gouges through the soil in this part of the ancient world's Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization.

The date palms tower as majestically as ever, but the clusters of gold-and-brown fruit are only a third of their normal size. The reason, say farmers, is the U.S.-led invasion, which disrupted the electricity needed to run irrigation pumps, interrupted the labor-intensive pollination process and ended the government's aerial spraying of pesticides.

Wandering through the thin shade of his grove southeast of Baghdad, Abed Ali Obayd complained bitterly about the harvest. Every bad thing that could happen to a date farmer happened this year.

A good date grove is hand-pollinated. Barefoot farm workers scamper up the male trees. A heavy metal cable with wooden handles is cinched progressively higher along the palm trunk, as the pollinator shimmies skyward to the fronds.

The workers move bee-like among the trees, taking pollen from the males and leaving it with the females.

Palm trees release their pollen in March and April -- exactly when battles were raging and bombs were falling. Frightened farm workers left the trees to pollinate naturally.

Then the war ended and Saddam Hussein's government was gone. So was any central authority except the U.S. Army, and so was the annual government-sponsored helicopter pesticide spraying. Insects are taking a huge toll among the dates that have appeared.

And now there is not enough electricity to power the pumps to bring vital water from the Tigris River. Obayd said he has power for two hours and then loses it for four.

"If we could just get eight hours straight, I could pump enough water to fill these ditches," Obayd said, pointing to the dusty channels that haven't carried water to the thirsty palms all this growing season.

In 2001, when Iraqi date production peaked at nearly 1 million tons, the crop was worth about $100 million. This year the Agriculture Ministry expects a harvest of 330,000 tons, its value hard to estimate because the old distribution system is broken and the quality of the fruit is low.

Farmers like Obayd say they have written this harvest off to the war, but worry that the U.S.-led coalition that runs the country will do nothing to fix what was broken by the fighting.

"It's not their job to take care of my palm trees. I can do that. But it is their job to set up a government to help us next year," he said, stopping to tend a black-and-white cow that munched silage with her calf in the orange grove beneath the palm canopy.

Obayd pays $3,000 a year to rent his 4.2-hectare grove. He says he will have to borrow from friends to get through until next season.

The coalition has poured millions of dollars into the Iraqi oil sector but the agricultural sector has seen little help.

Coalition spokesman Charles Heatly said U.S. officials were working hard to help Iraqi farmers.

"We are doing everything we can to help the Iraqi people in their economy; we've purchased the crop of barley and wheat, flew a plane load of money in to make sure we were able to make that purchase," he said.

Some international experts say the Iraqi economy must diversify if it is to succeed in the long term. Dates could play a central role. But the date palm industry has seen a long decline despite increasing yields until two years ago -- output boosted by better farming techniques. At the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 there were an estimated 32 million date palms. Now, three wars and a dozen years of sanctions later, only about 20 million have survived.

The shrinking industry is a huge drag on the national economy. An estimated 10 percent of the Iraqi work force depends on dates for living, whether by farming or by processing and packaging.

Dates can be made into anything from vinegar to distilled spirits to body powder. What is more important, in the Koran the Prophet Mohammed instructed Muslims to break their dusk-to-dawn fast during the holy month of Ramadan by eating a date even before taking a drink of water.

Iraqis contend the fruit is an aphrodisiac -- and say that is why date farmers have such big families. Obayd, 47, has 11 children.

Fadil Salem Naji owns the 4.2 hectares that Obayd farms, and hundreds more acres in Baghdad and to the south. The land has been in the family for 500 years, he said.