HILLA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqis are very fond of "mazgouf," fish split open and cooked over a wood fire.
But years of conflict and environmental woes have cut the supply of much-prized river fish, the preferred ingredient to make the dish.
A U.S.-backed project in central Iraq aims to revitalize Iraq's dilapidated fish farms and meet strong demand for fish that is likely to grow now that levels of violence are falling.
"Right now fish is the only product being produced in Iraq that has an over 200 percent profit margin, and it's because there's such a shortage," said Duane Stone, a U.S. fish farmer who is an advisor for the project.
Fish caught in the Tigris river, which flows through Baghdad, were once sought after to make "mazgouf."
But pollution has cut fish stocks and conflict after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq made it dangerous for fishermen to work on the river.
People were put off eating Tigris fish last year when rumors spread that the fish were eating corpses that had been dumped in the river, victims of violence between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
During former President Saddam Hussein's last years, the draining of Iraq's southern marshes and the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers led to a dramatic decline in fish caught off Iraq's coast, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
Farmed fish production fell as international sanctions restricted supplies of imported feed, drugs and machinery.
Most of the restaurants along Baghdad's Tigris waterfront that used to be packed with diners sampling "mazgouf" were forced to close by bloodshed following the invasion.
But with violence sharply down in the capital over the past year, some of the restaurants are reopening, fuelling demand for fish that is partly met by imports from Iran.
U.S. officials hope millions of tiny silver fish teeming in vast lakes at the Euphrates Fish Farm could help satisfy the demand while helping to lift central Iraq's economy.
The U.S. government is footing the bill for millions of three-month-old carp that will be sent out from Iraq's largest hatchery to about 1,000 fish farms in Babil province, a traditional fish farming area south of Baghdad. There, they will grow to full size before being sold.
The Euphrates Fish Farm began life as one of Saddam's showpiece projects in 1979, within sight of the imposing palace Saddam built on the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon.
Years of war, sanctions and strife reduced it to a shadow of its former self. Production of baby fish, known as fingerlings, dropped to fewer than 2 million last year, down from 12 million in the early 1990s.
This year, output is back up to 12 million again, thanks to $3.6 million in U.S. aid. Fully grown, those fish could be worth about $180 million in Iraqi markets.
The United States bought half this year's production of fish, which will be given to local farmers, helped refurbish the farm's pumps and bought high-tech vans designed to sharply reduce the number of fish that die in transit.
"I am very happy," says beaming owner Khudhair Abbas al-Emara as he reflected on the transformation of the hatchery, which employs 600 people.
Stone, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, says if the project is successful, it could have a far-reaching economic impact on the region.
Apart from boosting fish production, it could raise demand for locally produced fish feed, while water driven by the fish farm's pumps helps irrigate crops in the area.
Stone and other U.S. advisers say they hope the project will create jobs, helping stop local people from joining the insurgency against the Iraqi government or U.S. forces.
Iraqi security forces fought Shi'ite militiamen in the Babil provincial capital of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, part of an explosion of violence in southern Iraq in March.
In a sign of the tensions in the area, U.S. military vehicles ringed the fish farm during a visit by U.S. dignitaries this week and Emara maintains a 150-strong security force.
Asked if accepting U.S. aid might make the farm a target for insurgents, Stone said: "They are a target, but they know that. They were a target before we came on board."
Iraqi police will escort vans carrying their valuable cargo of young fish when they take them to other farms in the region.
After this year's success, Emara is optimistic he can produce even more next year.
"If you want 20 million fingerlings, I will work to give you them," he told reporters.
Editing by David Fogarty