Trees as far as the eye can see are the weapons one Iraqi province is using in the fight against desertification in a country where decades of conflict have exacted a terrible environmental toll.

Karbala, 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad, is best known as the site of the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas, who are among the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, and sees millions of pilgrims visit every year.

But it is also the location of a six-year-old project aimed at fighting worsening desertification in Iraq: a “green belt,” or a 27-kilometer crescent lined with thousands of young trees in orderly patterns, irrigated by dozens of wells.

The area had been used as a military encampment but is now the front line of Karbala’s battle against increasingly frequent sandstorms and salinization of the land.

“If we do nothing, the desert will envelop us,” said Hassan Jabbar, who heads the “green belt” project. “So we must go on the offensive, not on the defensive, and we must establish new irrigation projects.”

The project has involved the planting of 62,000 olive trees, 20,500 palm trees, 37,000 eucalyptus trees, and 4,200 tamarind trees, all of which were chosen for their root strength as well as for the food some eventually produce.

Karbala province governor Amal al-Din al-Har, himself a former director of the provincial agriculture department, spoke with pride of the project, and said he hoped to widen the belt tenfold from its current 100-metre (330 feet) width.

“For 30 years, Iraq has been combating desertification, but after we established the (national) anti-desertification office, what we have accomplished in Karbala has been the most ambitious and most successful effort in Iraq,” Har said.

The country’s environment ministry estimated in 2009 that 39 percent of Iraq’s surface was affected by desertification, while an additional 54 percent was under threat.

And while the ministry estimates that 28 percent of Iraq’s territory is comprised of arable land, around 250 square kilometers (96 square miles) are lost every year due to degradation of various kinds.

Iraq is far from the only country affected by desertification, but its tumultuous history has made it particularly vulnerable.

“Iraq has fought many wars,” noted Mohammed Ghazi Saeed, head of the national agriculture ministry’s anti-desertification department. “They have greatly damaged the country’s environment.”

Saeed said the situation worsened notably after now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent international coalition that formed to evict him from the neighboring emirate.

As Saddam’s forces fled Kuwait, they burned oil wells there, which Saeed said left Iraq “black, literally.”

“Of course, this poisoned the soil, the water, and led to the disappearance of many plant areas.”

The dictator’s military vehicles also destroyed green areas in the south and center of Iraq by loosening the soil as they traversed them, and his forces chopped or burned down swathes of vegetation as part of efforts to track down internal dissidents.

This has combined with climate change — Iraq has suffered several droughts over the past decade — to worsen an already difficult environmental situation, with sandstorms in Baghdad regularly forcing the closure of the capital’s airport, and leading to increased hospital visits due to respiratory problems.

In response, the Iraqi government has adopted a roadmap to fight desertification, involving efforts such as the Karbala green belt and planting programs in the areas near the western Anbar desert.

But Saeed said that while Iraq had started doing its part, neighboring countries were not pulling their weight, and insisted they had to allocate greater budgets to environmental preservation.

He also admitted that while authorities across Iraq were working to combat desertification, he was still not confident they would see the plans through to their conclusion.

“It is not really difficult to plant a tree — what is important is to let it grow,” he said. “I must admit that the government is not yet fully capable, it is still weak in terms of completing projects.”

Har was even harsher in his assessment of how much more needed to be done.

“I think Iraq is really far behind when it comes to the fight against desertification, and it really does not have strong measures to push efficient water usage,” he said.

“Even today, we do not consider it an essential part of life, and we waste water.”

Alluding to the years of violence that racked Iraq from 2006 to 2008, when confessional violence left tens of thousands dead, Har added: “Sandstorms now pose more of a problem than explosions.”