TOKYO - The United Nations on Friday launched a bid to designate Iraq's famed marshlands, which were ravaged by Saddam Hussein, a World Heritage site after a four-year restoration project.
The swampy southern region is believed by some to be the inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden. Saddam drained the marshlands after the end of the first Gulf War to punish Iraq's Shiite majority for an uprising.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) wrapped up a four-year project funded by Japan and Italy that restored more than half of the marshlands. Iraqi authorities took over plans for further rehabilitation.
Attending a final meeting on the project in Kyoto, Japan, UNEP chief Achim Steiner said the agency would work with UNESCO, the UN's cultural body, to list the marshlands as a World Heritage site.
Narmin Othman, Iraq's environment minister, said her government also planned to make the marshlands a national park, according to a UNEP statement.
"Because of what Saddam Hussein did, the marshlands were in danger of completely disappearing, as was the centuries-old culture of the Marsh Arabs," Othman said, according to the statement.
"It had become an ecological but also a human tragedy," she said.
Italy has agreed to fund the effort to list the marshlands as a World Heritage site, which would entail drafting plans to ensure the area's preservation, UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall said.
The last available satellite images showed that around 58 percent of the marshlands had been restored.
The marshlands stretched across some 20,000 square kilometres (7,700 square miles) in the 1970s. Most residents are Shiite Muslims, who form the majority in Iraq but were marginalised until the US-led invasion overthrew Saddam in 2003.