The Country & People of Iraq
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Iraq, officially Republic of Iraq, republic (1995 est. pop. 20,644,000), 167,924 sq mi (434,924 sq km), SW Asia, bordered by the Persian Gulf, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia (S), Jordan and Syria (W), Turkey (N), and Iran (E). Principal cities include Baghdad (the capital), Basra, and Mosul. Iraq is an almost landlocked country, its only outlet to the sea a short stretch of coast on the Persian Gulf. It is composed of a mountainous region in the northeast and the vast Syrian Desert, inhabited by a few nomadic shepherds, in the southwest; in-between is the heart of the country, a fertile lowland region watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Although about one third of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, oil production, notably in the great fields of Mosul and Kirkuk, dominates the economy. Iraq is among the largest oil producers of the Middle East. Its petroleum resources were nationalized in 1972, and oil revenues were used to promote industrialization and to transform Iraq into a military power. The UN-sponsored economic embargo imposed after the invasion of Kuwait has severely reduced Iraq's oil exports and devastated the economy. The country has a small, diversified industrial sector, with textiles, shoes, processed food, and building materials among its products. Iraq is a major producer of dates; other crops include cotton, cereals, and vegetables. Agriculture depends largely on irrigation. Most of the population are Muslim Arabs, divided religiously into the Sunnis of central Iraq and Shiites of the south. The Kurds, who inhabit the north (see Kurdistan), are the principal minority. Arabic is the official language in most of the country; Kurdish is official in northern sections; Assyrian and Armenian are spoken by some.
Modern Iraq is approximately coextensive with ancient Mesopotamia, and prior to the Arab conquest in the 7th cent. AD it was the site of a number of flourishing civilizations, including Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia. In the 8th cent., as capital of the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad became an important center of learning and the arts. Mesopotamia fell to the Ottoman Turks in the 16th cent.
The British invaded Iraq in World War I, and in 1920 the country became a League of Nations mandate under British administration. Iraq was made a kingdom under Faisal I in 1921, and the British mandate was terminated in 1932, although British military bases remained. Meanwhile, the first oil concession had been granted in 1925, and in 1934 the export of oil began. Domestic politics were marked by turbulence, and the country experienced seven military coups between 1936 and 1941.
Following an army coup in 1958, Iraq became a republic under Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem. The chronic Kurdish problem flared up in 1962, when tribes demanding an autonomous Kurdistan gained control of much of N Iraq. The rebellion collapsed (1975), but intermittent warfare continued. In 1968 a coup brought the Ba'ath party to power, and in 1979 Saddam Hussein became party leader and Iraq's president. Opposition within Iraq grew among the Shiites, who were the majority of the population yet were excluded from political control.
Iraq launched (1980) a costly war against Iran that ended (1988) in a stalemate. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, which it had previously claimed, provoking the Persian Gulf War; economic sanctions were also imposed, and remained in effect long after the war, although they were modified in 2002 to emphasize military-related goods. The war ended (1991) with Iraq ousted from Kuwait. Following the war, Iraqi Shiites and Kurds revolted. The uprisings were crushed, but both groups were provided (1992) with limited UN protection, which proved ineffective in the case of the Shiites; the Kurds established a self-proclaimed autonomous region in N Iraq. An Iraqi military buildup near the Kuwait border in 1994 led to the deployment of U.S. troops in Kuwait.
In 1996, Iraq reached an accord with the UN that allowed it to sell $1 billion worth of oil every 90 days, with the money set aside for food and medicine and compensation to Kuwaitis. Iraq destroyed at least some chemical weapons under UN supervision, but inspections imposed as part of the conditions for ending the Gulf War found evidence of chemical warheads and of a program to produce materials for nuclear weapons. Beginning in late 1997, Iraq resisted cooperating with the weapons inspections; this led to a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf. U.S. and British bombing raids against Iraq began in Nov. 1998 and have persisted on a smaller scale.
In 2002 the U.S. threatened military action against Iraq over its failure to permit weapons inspections, leading Iraq to announce that inspectors could return. In November the UN established a strict timetable for the resumption of inspections and Iraq permitted inspectors to return. Although inspectors did not find evidence of weapons or weapons programs, Iraq failed to assist in them in their attempts to determine that such programs no longer existed. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Britain continued to prepare for war with Iraq, and in Mar. 2003 demanded that Hussein step down or face an invasion.
On Mar. 19, 2003, they launched an airstrike aimed at Hussein personally, and sizable ground troops began invading the following day. After less than a month of fighting, Hussein's rule had collapsed, and U.S. and British forces had established a controlling presence in the major urban areas, although pockets of resistance remained. Hussein survived the war and went into hiding, and guerrilla attacks by what were believed to be Ba’ath loyalists and Islamic militants became an ongoing problem in the following months, largely in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. The Kurdish-dominated north and Shiite-dominated south were generally calmer. L. Paul Bremer 3d was appointed as civilian head of the occupation. UN economic sanctions were lifted in May, 2003, and in mid-July an interim Governing Council consisting of representatives of Iraqi opposition groups was established. Nonetheless, civil order and the economy appeared to be being restored at a slow pace that threatened to create animosity toward the occupying forces. The cost for rebuilding Iraq was estimated by Bremer in late 2003 to be as much as $100 billion over three years. Meanwhile, U.S.-British failure to find biological or chemical weapons led to charges that Anglo-American leaders had exaggerated the Iraqi threat to international security.
In Oct., 2003, the UN Security Council passed a British-American resolution calling for a timetable for democratic self-rule in Iraq to be established by mid-December. Events, however, led the United States to speed up the process, and in November the Governing Council endorsed a U.S.-proposed plan that called for self-rule in mid-2004 under a transitional assembly, which would be elected by a system of caucuses. However, many Shiites objected to this because it would not involve elections; they feared a diminished voice in the government and greater U.S. influence if caucuses were used to choose the assembly. Hussein was finally captured by U.S. forces in Dec., 2003.
In Jan., 2004, U.S. arms inspectors reported that they had found no evidence of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons stockpiles prior to the U.S. invasion; the asserted existence of such stockpiles had been a main justification for the invasion. (Subsequently, a Senate investigation criticized the CIA for providing faulty information and assessments concerning Iraq’s weapons. In addition, U.S. inspectors concluded in Oct., 2004, that although Hussein never abandoned his goal of acquiring nuclear weapons, Iraq had halted its nuclear program after the first Persian Gulf War.) An interim constitution was signed by the Governing Council in March, but many Shiites, including nearly all those on the council, objected to clauses that would restrict the power of the president and enable the Kurds potentially to veto a new constitution.
At the end of March, Sunni insurgents in Fallujah attacked a convoy of U.S. civilian security forces, killing four and desecrating the corpses, which prompted a U.S. crackdown on the town, a center of Sunni insurgency. The fighting there in April resulted in the most significant casualties since since the end of the invasion; the conflict ended with the insurgents largely in place. At about the same time, U.S. moves against the organization of a radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, led him to call for an uprising. There was unrest in a number of cities in S central and S Iraq, but by mid-April al-Sadr’s forces were in control only in the area around An Najaf, a city holy to Shiites, and a cease-fire took effect in June.
Revelations in May of U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003 and early 2004 sparked widespread dismay and outrage in Iraq, the United States, and the world. The president of the Governing Council was assassinated the same month. In June, the United Nations endorsed the reestablishment of Iraqi sovereignty, and at the end of the month, Iyad Allawi, a Shiite, became prime minister and Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, a Sunni, president as the interim constitution took effect. Saddam Hussein and 11 other former high-ranking Iraqi officials were formally turned over to the new government and were arraigned.
Large-scale fighting with al-Sadr’s militia occurred again in August, centered on An Najaf and, to a lesser degree, Sadr City, a Shiite section of Baghdad, but the militia subsequently abandoned An Najaf and fighting ceased. By October al-Sadr had shifted to converting his movement into a political force. Also in August, a 100-member National Council, responsible for overseeing the interim government and preparing for elections in 2005, was established. In central Iraq, where a number of Sunni urban areas had been all but ceded to insurgents, U.S. forces began operations to establish control in the fall of 2004. Estimates of the insurgents’ numbers, including foreign guerrillas, ranged from 8,000 to 12,000. Some insurgents also resorted to taking hostages and beheading them. The ongoing violence in Iraq continued to hamper reconstruction, as a lack of security hindered rebuilding and security needs diverted money away from rebuilding.
Kurdistan, extensive plateau and mountain region in SW Asia (74,000 sq mi/191,660 sq km), inhabited mainly by Kurds and including parts of E Turkey, N Syria, NE Iraq, S Armenia, and NW Iran. Ethnically and linguistically close to the Iranians, the Kurds, who number about 20 million, were traditionally nomadic herders but are now mostly seminomadic or sedentary. The majority are Sunni Muslims and speak Kurdish. The Kurds have traditionally resisted subjugation by other nations. Kurdistan was conquered by the Arabs and converted to Islam in the 7th cent. The region was held by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th cent., by the Mongols from the 13th to 15th cent., and then by the Ottoman Empire.
Since World War I the Kurds have struggled unsuccessfully in the various countries in which they live for self-determination and independence. In 1946 a short-lived, Soviet-backed Kurdish republic was formed in Iran. There were Kurdish uprisings in Iraq in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. After the Persian Gulf War, Kurdish groups again rose against Iraq but were crushed, and perhaps 1.5 million fled to Turkey and Iran. Returning under UN protection, they established (1992) an autonomous region in N Iraq, but in 1994 fighting erupted among the rival Kurdish factions, and control of the area is divided between two rival groups.
Iraqi Kurds aided U.S.-British forces in 2003 in their war to oust Saddam Hussein from power. In Turkey, Kurdish guerrillas began fighting the government in the mid-1980s, and in 1992 Turkey mounted a concerted attack on the rebels. In 1995 Turkish forces invaded N Iraq in an attempt to destroy guerrilla bases and supplies. The head of the Kurdish guerrillas was arrested by Turkish officials in 1999 and sentenced to death for treason; in 2000 the guerrillas announced they would end their attacks. Some 23,000–30,000 people may have died in the 15-year war. There was fighting in the early 1990s between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds as well and Kurdish unrest in Syria in 2004.
Copyright (c) 2003 Columbia University Press.
Used by permission of Columbia University Press.
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