AL HILLAH, Iraq -- As the hot afternoon sun blazed down from an intense, blue sky Aug. 5, military members of the Humanitarian Aid Coordination Center took part in an ancient tradition of the Middle East: the date harvest.
Long before oil was discovered, Iraq was known for its dates. So famous are palm dates, the fruit is mentioned in the Koran at least 29 times, more than some prophets.
While dates have become Iraq's second leading export, the technique of gathering dates goes back centuries, which the participants learned.
"The locals invited us to take part in the harvest because it is so much a part of their lives," said Army Maj. Robert Broody, a member of the HACC who took part in the harvest. "Climbing those trees is harder than it looks."
Because some trees tower more than 100 feet, it can be a trek to the treetops where the dates grow in large bunches.
Harvesters use a steel cable looped around the tree with a woven backrest to inch their way to the top. With a sling around their neck for the dates, many of the harvesters climb barefooted.
A mature tree can produce as much as a ton of fruit every year, thus making it a leading cash crop in Iraq, according to Army Lt. Col. Philip McMillan, agriculture officer of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade of Norristown, Pa.
The dates must then be twisted off the stems from the middle of the bunch, so as not to disturb the other fruit.
"The dates on the inside mature faster because the surrounding fruit holds in the heat and humidity," McMillan said.
Harvested every two to three days, the dates are taken directly to the local market to be sold, or are dried in the sun and sold as an export product, according to Sheik Haji Mah di Abbass, a member of the Taie tribe of the Babil province, where the city of Al Hillah is located.
McMillan said that in the days before disposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein came to power, Iraq annually exported some 500,000 tons of dates to countries all over the world. Today, annual harvests produce half of that, according to McMillan.
According to Abbass, this decline can be blamed on Hussein's hatred of Shiite Muslims, who occupy much of the south where the date palms are grown.
"He would cut down trees and drain the water so the trees would die," Abbass said through a translator.
Of an original 30 million date palm trees the country boasted in the 1970s, Iraq has only roughly half that number remaining.
Local farmers are planting new trees, but it will be at least another 20 years before the trees reach maturity, McMillan said.
Currently, reconstruction plans are being discussed to restore various wetlands that supplied much of the country's date crop of Iraq to produce larger annual yields.