There was something comforting about the sight of sporting shotguns and rifles in pink racks lining the walls of the hunt shop in Basra. In a country full of weapons, these were some of the few that weren’t being used to shoot people.
The owner of the shop, Rafid, had invited us on a pig shoot – an unlikely prospect in this predominantly Muslim country – with some British Army officers who were also keen to take a break from peacekeeping to go hunting.
As it turned out, spare ribs were off the menu. On the same day that we met up with Rafid, a car bomb meant for a passing Land Rover full of British squaddies exploded, leaving them unharmed but killing five bystanders. A few days later, 13 British soldiers were wounded when a demonstration turned ugly.
The officers clearly had other things on their mind. And without a military escort for our excursion, we would have to avoid travelling through prime pig country, thick with heavily-armed nomadic tribes. These groups – not quite Bedouin, more like bandits – were once kept in check by the old regime, but are now a fully-fledged rural blight: they pillage, loot and kidnap.
According to Rafid, even the falconry-obsessed sheiks who once roamed the western deserts in search of the bustard (a gamebird famed for its supposed aphrodisiac properties) now steer clear. It was best for our five-strong party to head south, stick close to the river – and hunt for grouse.
Below Basra, the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway formed by the merging of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, turns into the border between Iran and Iraq, a band of water in a dry clime. The area once supported huge date palm groves until an Iraqi general ordered the trees to be cut down to create clear fields of fire during the Iran-Iraq war.
Trenchworks replaced irrigation canals and charred stumps now stand in ordered rows like tombstones. An unintended consequence of this devastation was the creation of some decent upland bird habitat, unusual this close to a lowland river system. While the riverbanks are reedy, lush and dotted with trees, beyond the dykes the greenery quickly gives way to pine scrub, bracken and thick dust.
Iraqi hunters hope that the country will once again become a holiday destination of choice for the great flocks of waterfowl migrating to and from Europe and Russia. The marshes north of Basra that were drained by Saddam in 1991 after the failed Shia uprising are being reflooded, providing a tempting habitat.
At the same time, however, the absence of law and order means that poaching and large-scale commercial game harvesting are rampant. Rafid is one of a few Iraqi hunters who are trying to bring some semblance of conservation to the sport but, as is typical in Iraq, it is unclear just who has the authority to do so. The country has two hunting societies: one in Baghdad and the other in Balad Ruz, a town in the Sunni Triangle west of the capital. Both claim that they can grant licences, set hunting seasons and game limits.
Like his white Land Rover, Rafid’s appreciation of the traditions of hunting was evidence of a limited form of Anglophilia. “The English were the ones who set the rules for hunting,” he said. “If we’re going to be a modern nation, we have to have modern hunting rules – but if they overreact with the rules, it’s just going to give hunters a hard time.”
When we arrive at our chosen hunting grounds, a series of farms owned by a friend of Rafid, it becomes clear that he thinks “a hard time” involves having to hunt on foot. There are no beaters, no labradors fetching downed birds. Instead, Ali drives the Land Rover up on to a berm, spots a grouse, stops the vehicle, backs up a few feet, sticks his shotgun out the window and shoots the bird on the ground. “Man, at home they take away your truck if you do that,” said my friend Rob.
For a while this pattern continued. The Land Rover prowled the bush breaks hoping to flush out birds, Rafid and Ali sat in the front seats blazing away while Rob and I, sharing a gun in the back, did all we could to keep from breaking the glass of the child-proof windows.
“For Chrissake, let’s get out of the car,” shouted Rob. “I guess they don’t like walking,” I said, and at that moment we hit a bump and one of the front tyres started hissing. “Well, we’re walking now.”
While Rafid and Ali got the Land Rover up on a jack and switched to a spare tyre, I headed down into a patch of low-lying land to rustle up some action. On a rise above me, two women in black abbayas stood motionless in front of their mud brick homes, silently watching.
Nearby, a group of men with a ladder tried to hook a wire up to the one power line running through the area. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself – an intruder, an American with a gun, shooting up the neighbourhood. A passing farmer called out to us. “If you don’t get any birds,” he invited, “come kill a cow!”
That would be unnecessary. The day’s haul consisted of nine grouse, all about the size of large avocados. We couldn’t identify the particular species, though the males were covered with black and speckled white feathers over the head and shoulders, while the females – which our guides didn’t hesitate to shoot – were a flecked dun colour.
As night fell, Rafid and Ali hurriedly packed their dirty old guns into their four-wheel-drive. They refused payment for their trouble, or even reimbursement for spent cartridges. As the flares from Iranian oil refineries flickered like warning beacons, and we mentally calculated the time it would take to get back to Basra, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would still be possible to rely upon the kindness of strangers in a country where five men with shotguns are afraid to be on the road after dark.