A toxic threat rises amid northern Iraq's prosperity

The date of his birth is not recorded, but he thinks it must be 1931. Muhammad Jassem, who measures time by the length of his shadow and the height of his crops, has been plowing this field "since my first shave."

The little farm, nestled in the foothills of northern Iraq's Qara Dagh mountain range, has remained unchanged for generations. But behind Mr. Jassem, less than 100 yards away, a strange new mountain has formed. A towering inferno of smoking garbage, about 100 feet high, it's the landfill for the nearby city of Sulaymaniyah.

The landfill sat quietly for more than a decade, but it began to swell and simmer after the 2003 war. A procession of trucks dumps 500 to 600 tons of trash a day. Bits break off and hurtle from its smoky peaks into Mr. Jassem's farm.

"We fear that if the mountain catches fire, it could swallow us," says Jassem, looking sadly at his wife, Amina. "As long as this mountain is here, we are doomed."

The burning mountain symbolizes Iraqi Kurdistan's prosperity. After guerrillas from Iraq's northern hills staged an uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the US protected the region, making it one of the safest spots in the country. Sulaymaniyah's population grew to 630,000 from about 300,000 in 1990.

Today, factories make bricks, cinder blocks, cement, and cigarettes. But the price of this growth is environmental damage: Unregulated industries churn toxins into the air, and the landfill leaks chemicals into the Tanjaroo River, contaminating the crops, the groundwater, and perhaps eventually poisoning the aquifer for the entire region.

When the rest of Iraq begins to recover economically, it will face the same problem as Sulaymaniyah, but on a much larger scale. The UN Environment Program estimates that there are about 300 environmental "hot spots" scattered around Iraq, ranging from chemical spills to oil trench fires and old sulphur mines. Right now, the Iraqi government is cleaning up five sites, at a price tag of about $5 million.

Jassem says he knows the mound is toxic. Before garbage choked off his irrigation ditch, the black syrup that oozes out of the mountain fouled its water. After stray dogs drank from it, he would fish their poisoned bodies from the ditch.

Most Iraqis are too busy worrying about car bombs and assassinations to lose sleep over the state of Iraq's ecosystem. "In the developed world, the environment is a very important topic," says Hussam Barzanji, director of Kurdistan Economic Development Organization. "But here, people say that the needs of the people are more pressing. They don't care about protecting the environment."

Half the country does not have drinkable water; annually, thousands of children die from diseases borne by dirty water. If Iraq is to rebuild, say experts, it will have to start looking after its air and water now. "They have to be integrated," says Amin Barzanji, an environmental engineer. "It's not something you can ignore and say 'let's do it later.'"

When Mr. Barzanji, a Kurd from Sulaymaniyah, returned to his homeland early this year, he found a mission: convincing fellow Kurds to clean up their act. "I realized there were major environmental problems in Kurdistan," he says earnestly. "The main one is the groundwater. A guy washes his car, he waters his garden - it's becoming like a symbol of affluence. One guy gets a generator, and his neighbor has to have one too. This is a problem in all of Iraq."

Barzanji is trying to convince the mayor to invest in a state-of-the-art landfill with an underground lining. But last summer, when he gave a lecture at Sulaymaniyah University on waste management, officials from neighboring Kirkuk showed up; none came from Sulaymaniyah.

Mayor, Qader Azez, says he's aware of the problem. "This is one of our main concerns, that the garbage is being thrown outside the city in a careless way," he says. But with 52 ongoing development projects, and an annual budget of only $45 million, the landfill is likely to remain a low priority.

At the landfill, atop a cinder block, four-year-old Muhammad sits playing with a salvaged aluminum knife. His father roots for scrap metal.

Muhammad has a cough from the smoke, but he likes the landfill. His father says the cough is just a cold; he doesn't know that burning plastic releases dioxin, or that the greasy smoke they breathe all day could hurt his son's lungs.

"Someone, somewhere, pays the price of development," says Barzanji. "In the short term, these people will be paying the price. In the long term, everyone will."

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