The history of the Iraqi people is amongst the most culturally rich and vibrant in the world. Over the past two decades, this has been tainted by successive wars, ruthless rule, and sanctions. Prior to the 2003 US-led invasion, five million Iraqis had left Iraq and hundreds of thousands were living as refugees. In addition about one million were displaced within Iraq itself. Since 2003, UNHCR estimates that at least 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq and a further 1 million have been displaced inside the country.
Despite early hopes to build a prosperous, secure and democratic society, according to the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, “Violence is fracturing the nation of Iraq and Baghdad is losing its grip on the country. The South is being divided into Shi’a fiefdoms, the West is becoming the territory of Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish North has established de facto independence.” Worryingly, as the Project goes on to point out, should such fragmentation continue, not only could displacement increase manifold, but the essential delivery of humanitarian assistance could become still more difficult.
While violence is presently heavily concentrated in the Centre and less so in the South of Iraq, as the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq points out, the whole country needs to be prepared to respond to current and future emergency situations, whether in terms of conflict or natural disasters.
- "IRAQ EMERGENCY SITUATION", Trends in violence, Humanitarian needs, Preparedness, a study conducted by NCCI and Oxfam GB, 2 May 2006, http://www.ncciraq.org/IMG/pdf/NCCI_-_Iraq_Emergency_Situation_-_Final_Report_-_2nd_May_2006.pdf
- Update on Humanitarian Issues and Politics in Iraq, Elizabeth Ferris (Senior Fellow and Co-director) and Mathew Hall (Research Assistant), Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 6 July, 2007, http://www.brook.edu/views/papers/ferris/20070706.htm
Iraq is the site of a number of the earliest civilisations, including those of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. The capital of the Abbasid caliphate was established in Baghdad in the eighth century and the city became a famous centre for learning and the arts. Since then Iraq has moved through periods of Ottoman control and British administration, finally gaining independence in 1932. In 1933 a revolt by the small Christian Assyrian community culminated in a governmental military crackdown and loss of lives, setting a precedent for internal minority uprisings in Iraq. Domestic politics remained turbulent, with many factions contending for power. Late in 1936, the country experienced the first of many military coups that were to characterise Iraqi politics over the next fifty years.
In 1958 Iraq was declared a Republic and Islam the national religion. In 1963 members of the Iraqi Ba'ath party, a socialist group whose overall goal was Arab unity, dominated the regime that seized power. Iraq took an active part in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (as it had also done in 1948). In early 1974, years of border conflicts with Iran culminated in heavy, armed clashes along the entire length of their border. At this time, Iraq's acquired wealth from its oil revenues enabled the establishment of modernisation programs and improved public services throughout the country. By 1979, the year that Saddam Hussein came to power, Iraq was the most highly developed state in the region.
- Middle Eastern Political Geography, 1UpInfo Encyclopaedia, http://www.1upinfo.com/encyclopedia/I/Iraq-history-the-ascension-of-saddam-hussein.html
- History of Iraq, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Iraq
Iraq under Sadaam Hussein
Saddam Hussein was born in a village just outside Takrit in April 1937. In his teenage years, Saddam immersed himself in the anti-British and anti-Western atmosphere of the day. At college in Baghdad he joined the Ba'ath party and in 1956 he took part in an abortive coup attempt. After the overthrow of the monarchy two years later Saddam connived in a plot to kill the Prime Minister, Abdel-Karim Qassem. When the conspiracy was discovered, he fled the country.
In 1963, with the Ba'ath party in control in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein returned home and began jostling for a position of influence. However, within months, the Ba'ath party had been overthrown and Saddam was jailed, remaining there until the party returned to power in a coup in July 1968. Showing ruthless determination that was to become a hallmark of his leadership, Saddam gained a position on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.
For years he was the power behind the ailing figure of the President, Ahmed Hassan Bakr. In 1979, Saddam achieved his ambition of becoming head of state and started as he intended to go on - by putting to death dozens of his rivals. He remained largely isolated from his people, keeping the company of a diminishing circle of trusted advisers, largely drawn from his close family or from the extended clan based around the town of Takrit.
War between Iran and Iraq, primarily over the Shatt al Arab waterway, erupted full-scale in 1980. The eight-year war became a series of mutual attacks and stalemates, as both countries' oil production fell drastically, the death-toll rose, and great mutual destruction was inflicted. Eventually, a cease-fire under the auspices of the United Nations led to the war's end in 1988. Iran and Iraq restored diplomatic relations in 1990.
Throughout 1989 and into 1990, Saddam Hussein’s repressive policies and continued arms build-up caused international criticism, particularly in the United States, which had favoured Iraq during the war with Iran. Iraqi hostility against Israel increased, particularly after Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. In July 1990 Saddam accused neighbouring Kuwait of flooding world oil markets, causing oil prices to decrease and threatening Iraq's attempts to boost its war-torn economy. On 2 August 1990, some 120,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, and declared its annexation. The United Nations established international trade sanctions against Iraq, but Saddam did not withdraw his troops. US-led coalition forces began air attacks on Iraq on 16 January 16 1991, which led to a ground invasion to retake Kuwait. While suffering heavy casualties, Iraq retained its elite Republican Guard, and Saddam remained in power. UN inspections imposed as part of the conditions for ending the war found evidence of chemical warheads and of a program to produce materials for nuclear weapons; Iraq destroyed at least some chemical weapons under UN supervision. The war left huge amounts of wreckage in the country's major cities and ports, and created hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, who fled to Turkey, Iran, and Jordan. Iraq's major problems were feeding its population and rebuilding its war-torn country. Crippling trade sanctions aggravated these problems.
In May 1996, Iraq reached an accord with the United Nations allowing it to sell one billion dollars' worth of oil every ninety days. The money was to be used for purposes including food, medicine, and compensation to Kuwaitis. In October 1997, the UN Disarmament Commission concluded that Iraq was continuing to hide information on biological arms and was withholding data on chemical weapons and missiles. US weapons inspectors were expelled from Iraq in November 1997, and a US military build-up in the Persian Gulf ensued. As Iraq ceased co-operating with UN inspectors, the United States and Britain began a series of air raids against Iraqi military targets and oil refineries in December 1998. Suggestions by US government officials that the 'war on terrorism' might be expanded to include operations against Iraq became real in March 2003, as 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' was led by the US-British coalition, under the premise of ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
- 1UpInfo Encyclopaedia, Middle Eastern Political Geography, http://reference.allrefer.com/encyclopedia/I/Iraq-land-and-people.html
- Butt, Gerald, and Assiyasi, Al-Mushahid, 'Saddam Hussein - his rise to power', BBC Arabic Magazine, Tuesday, 17 November 1998 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/crisis_in_the_gulf/decision_makers_and_diplomacy/216328.stm
- International Crisis Group (ICG): 'Iraq Backgrounder: What lies beneath', 1 October 2002 http://www.icg.org/library/documents/report_archive/A400786_01102002.pdf
The Iraqi Ba'ath party was one of the tools with which Saddam Hussein maintained a tight grip on his country. The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party was founded in Syria in the 1940s by a small group of French-educated Syrian intellectuals - Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox, and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. The word Ba'ath means 'renaissance' in Arabic. The party's ideology is pan-Arab, secular nationalism. A committed Ba'athist should see individual Arab states as regions or provinces of the larger Arab nation. The party is secular, and in the beginning, was steeped in socialist ideology.
The Iraqi Ba'ath party was founded in 1951 and had 500 members three years later. Though the Ba'ath party was formally the institution that ruled Iraq, actual power was in the hands of a narrow elite united by family and tribal ties, not ideology. During the 1970s surnames were abolished to attempt to disguise this - identification cards and birth certificates recorded only the individual's first name and father's name.
In the late 1980s, the party claimed more than 1.5 million members, about 10 percent of Iraqis. The party had a highly regimented structure. At the lowest level, the village, it had cells of between three and seven people, rising up to regional commands and a national command. In the 1980s, the socialist ideology of the party accommodated itself to capitalism. Nationalised industries were privatised. Iraqi businessmen trying to take advantage of the country's oil wealth often pursued their ambitions through the party.
- Kafala, Tarik, 'The Iraqi Ba'ath Party', BBC News Online, 25 March 2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/2886733.stm
Ethnicity, religion, and society
Although about 95 percent of Iraq's population is Muslim, the community is split between Sunnis and Shi'ites; the latter group, a minority in the Arab world as a whole, constitutes a majority in Iraq. Estimates of the number of Shi'a vary from 54 to 70 per cent. The Sunnis believe that after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, leadership should be in the hands of the community at large, while the Shi'a believe the descendants of the prophet should lead.
The most important exception to the Arab character of Iraq is the large Kurdish minority, estimated at 19 per cent of the population. The Kurds are a distinct group of people who have inhabited the Middle East for as long as there have been written records. Most live in an area located at the intersection of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. The Yazidis are of Kurdish stock but are distinguished by their unique religious fusion of elements of paganism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. They live in small and isolated groups, mostly in the Sinjar Mountains west of Mosul. According to official government statistics, Turkomans and other Turkish-speaking peoples account for only 2 to 3 per cent of the population. The Turkomans are village dwellers living in the north-east along the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions. Prior to the 2003 US-led invasion, Christians made up nearly 4 per cent of the population of Iraq.
Almost all Iraqis speak at least some Arabic, the mother tongue for the Arab majority. Kurdish is spoken in northern Iraq; the Turkomans converse in Turkish; and Farsi is spoken by some tribal groups. The Assyrians, descendants of ancient Mesopotamian peoples, speak Aramaic.
Given the richness of Iraq's religions and ethnicities, it is not surprising that Iraqi society is composed of sizeable and distinct social groups whose differences and divisions have been only slowly and fitfully challenged by the emergence of a strong, centralised political regime and state apparatus. Moreover, there are regional and environmental differences between the scattered mountain villages, whose economic base is rain-fed grain crops, and the more densely populated riverside communities to the south that are dependent on intricate irrigation and drainage systems for their livelihood. Just before the Iran-Iraq War, the sharp cleavage between the rural and urban communities that formerly characterised Iraqi society started to break down as a result of policies instituted by the government. The war accelerated this process. Continuous fighting has devastated large areas of the rural south, which triggered a massive rural migration to the capital.
Kinship groups are the fundamental social units, regulating many activities. Rights and obligations centre on the extended family and the lineage. The family remains the primary focus of loyalty; and it is in this context, rather than the broader one of corporate loyalties defined by sectarian, ethnic, or economic considerations, that the majority of Iraqis find the common denominators of their everyday lives. A mutually protective attitude among relatives is taken as a matter of course. Relatives tend to be preferred as business partners since they are believed to be more reliable than persons over whom one does not have the hold of kinship ties.
- 1UpInfo Encyclopaedia, Middle Eastern Political Geography http://www.1upinfo.com/country-guide-study/iraq/iraq25.html
- International Crisis Group (ICG): 'Iraq Backgrounder: What lies beneath', 1 October 2002 http://www.icg.org/library/documents/report_archive/A400786_01102002.pdf
Geography and economy
Iraq is located in the Middle East. It is bordered by Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria to the north-west, Jordan to the west, Saudi Arabia to the south-west, and Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to the south-east. The country can be divided into four main topographical regions: (1) the north-eastern highlands, which include the Zagros Mountains; (2) the upland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is mostly desert; (3) a marshland region just above the convergence of the two rivers; and (4) the extensive, barren, rock and sand desert region in the south and west, which constitute part of the Great Arabian and Syrian Deserts. Around 38 per cent of the total land area is desert. The principal rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates.
Iraq has an arid climate with hot, dry summers from May to October and cold winters from December to March. Most of the rainfall occurs from December to March. In Baghdad the average annual precipitation is 140 mm (6 inches), whilst in the north-east, where it is highest, it varies from 400 to 600 mm (16 to 23 inches) annually. Elsewhere, rainfall is low and unreliable. The prevailing winds are the Sharqi or Sirocco, a south-easterly dry, dust-laden wind, and the Shamal, a north-westerly dry, cool wind. Average temperature in Baghdad ranges from 4ºC to 16ºC (39ºF to 61ºF) in January, to 24ºC to 50ºC (75ºF to 122ºF) in July or August.
The oil industry dominated Iraq's economy, traditionally accounting for nearly 95 per cent of the country's revenues. Oil exports, which suffered during the Iran-Iraq War, improved during the late 1980s, only to be severely decreased by the sanctions of the Gulf War. Aside from petroleum production and refining, Iraq has a small, diversified industrial sector, including the production of chemicals, textiles, cement, food products, construction materials, leather goods, and machinery. New industries have been started in electronics products, fertilisers, and refined sugar. Agricultural production, which employs about a third of the workforce, has been severely hampered by the import restrictions arising from sanctions, and is not sufficient to meet the country's food requirements. Iraq's chief crops include wheat, barley, rice, vegetables, dates (Iraq is one of the world's largest producers), and cotton. Cattle and sheep are also raised.
Iraq is highly dependent on foreign economic aid, from both Western and Arab countries. Sanctions have reduced both exports and imports needed to run the agricultural sector effectively, contributing to a sharp rise in prices. More than two decades of war, national mismanagement and sanctions have left Iraq with debts of an estimated US$262 billion.
- 1UpInfo Encyclopaedia, Country Study and Guide: Iraq http://www.1upinfo.com/country-guide-study/iraq/iraq25.html
- Altapedia Online, Countries A-Z http://www.atlapedia.com/online/countries/iraq.htm
- The CIA World Factbook 2007 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iz.html
- Jubilee Research: Briefing on Debt in Iraq http://www.jubileeresearch.org/databank/Briefings/iraq170403.htm
- OXFAM Briefing Paper No. 48: 'A Fresh Start for Iraq: The case for debt relief', May 2003 http://publications.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam/display.asp?K=20040623_2316_000028