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Iraqi Flight Teams Protect Date Palm Crop

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 10, 2008 – Iraq’s Agriculture Ministry improved its ability to protect the nation’s commercial date palm crop from deadly dubas beetles through a nationwide spraying program completed this week.

Pilots and maintenance crews increased their coverage by 33 percent this year, spraying nearly 170,000 acres in six provinces. Last year, crews sprayed just more than 120,000 acres in four provinces.

“Left unchecked, the dubas beetle, which bores into the tree and kills it, can seriously disrupt the production of dates in the area,” said Mike Stevens, a Baghdad 7 Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team agriculture advisor.

In the 1970s, dates were Iraq’s second-largest export, behind only oil. With more than 30 million date palm trees and more than 600 varieties, Iraqi annual production of dates once exceeded 700,000 tons. But the date palm industry was slashed by more than half and lost most of its world markets after the Iran-Iraq war and after sanctions were imposed following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. In the past two years, Iraq has begun the long, hard road to recovery.

To assist this recovery, Iraqi pilots and crews used two Russian-built Mi2 helicopters to spray date palm groves in the provinces of Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Najaf and Wasit. They overcame multiple challenges during the campaign, including time constraints, dust storms, a shortage of spare parts, and a lack of bases that could accommodate the helicopters.

Iraq’s Defense Ministry, provincial reconstruction teams, and coalition forces supported the pilots, who sprayed some areas that had not been covered since before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Agriculture Ministry already has started planning for next year. The ministry has appropriated $20 million to buy new helicopters and spare parts for 2009 and expects to treat a larger percentage of the crop next year.

“The real challenge now is to rebuild the date-packaging industry and re-enter the export market to regain market share,” Stevens said. “Convincing purchasers that Iraq is once again a reliable supplier will take time. But within five to 10 years, don’t be surprised to see packages of dates labeled ‘Grown and packaged in Iraq’ in your neighborhood grocery store.”

(From a Multinational Force Iraq news release.)

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