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Something fishy about the Tigris River

Shaboot and Buny are the favored fish of Baghdadis. Traditionally enjoyed grilled on wood ovens and eaten al fresco in the cool of the evening in riverside restaurants, they symbolize the taste of a way of life that's existed for decades, of easier days gone by.

However, the local appetite for fish appears to be on the decline.

"People just aren't eating it much anymore because there are so many dead bodies being fished out of the river that they are worried about eating fish that have been feeding on dead bodies," a colleague told me after venturing out to some of the (once popular) restaurants on the river banks.

In fact fishing dead bodies out of the river seems to be the main activity along the banks of the Tigris these days. Hardly a day goes by without another report of a body being dumped into Baghdad's main waterway.

The river is convenient for dumping corpses, and, it seems, has become a useful artery for extremists.

"What we found is that locals are not using the Tigris River for fishing. In fact as we engage with the local population they tell us the only people using the Tigris River are insurgents and extremists," U.S. Gen. Rick Lynch said at a recent press conference.   

"What we have chosen to do is to take out all boats. So anything that's floating on the Tigris River, what we believe to be an enemy activity, we take out," Lynch explained. "Of the many boats we've taken out, 17 so far, there have been significant secondary explosions indicating they were being used to transport munitions."           

Still casting a line
Yet in some of its twists and turns as the Tigris snakes around Baghdad's city center, there is a semblance of familiar river life.

Young kids are still using the Tigris for what they've been doing for centuries, dipping in the water as refuge from the intense summer heat. And fishermen, at least some, are still fishing.

An NBC translator recently came across a few trying their luck on a quiet river bend. One fisherman named Ahmed described how it's increasingly difficult to make a living from the river.

"There are just fewer places to fish," said Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be used. "We can't use our usual area because it's along the banks of the heavily fortified Green Zone – so the Americans won't let us. And in the nearby Dora area it's too dangerous – there are just too many snipers."

"On top of that, there isn't even much demand for fish these days," Ahmed added. He attributed the lack of demand for fish to the high cost. At approximately $5 per kilogram, fish are almost unaffordable for the average Iraqi who earns about $200 per month.  

Hussein, a local fishmonger, wholeheartedly agreed. He insisted the falloff is sales was more about market price and low income than unease about dead bodies. Baghdadis, he reckoned, are made of stronger stuff.

(Our local NBC News staff tended to agree with Hussein. Questions about fish conjured up memories of cherished aromas and flavors from the past – a treat which, if it's perhaps less frequent these days, is still a feasible on occasions. Not something easily relinquished, dead bodies or not).

But the suggestion of possible problems with fish is starting to hit a nerve. The debate has reached the national TV level with citizens being warned off feasting on fish that may have fed off humans. Shiite clerics have been consulted to check that, in principle at least, the fish are OK to eat.

Meantime, restaurateurs have been busy reassuring people that their fish are from fish farms rather than the legendary, now unsavory, Tigris.