Iraq is one of the easternmost countries in the Arab world. The country shares a border with Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, Syria and Jordan to the west, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south. Iraq has a short but important coastline of 58 km (or 36 miles) to the Persian Gulf. Altogether, Iraq has an area of 438,317 sq. km (169,235 sq. miles), which is roughly the size of California.

Iraq has a desert climate, which leads to mild, cool winters with temperatures from 2 to 5°C (35.6-41°F) and hot, dry summers that can reach 48°C (118.4°F). The desert climate can also lead to sandstorms and dust storms. Iraq’s desert area is mainly to the south and west, extending to and beyond its borders with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is mostly flat, but it has a mountain range, the Zagros Mountains, to the northeast on the borders with Turkey and Iran. The mountains receive heavy snowfall in the winter, which can result in flooding in the spring. Its northern region is situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and it is where the name Mesopotamia, meaning “land between the rivers”, comes from.

Currently, Iraq faces many environmental issues: desertification, lack of safe drinking water, damage to marshes and other natural habitats, soil degradation, and water and air pollution. The question of water security has sparked some regional disputes, including with Turkey over the Euphrates River (see more on this in the International & Regional Issues section below).

Government water control projects have drained most of the marsh areas that used to exist east of An Nasiriyah by drying up or diverting the streams and rivers. The draining of the swamp areas has meant that the population of Marsh Arabs, who inhabited these areas for thousands of years, have been displaced. Furthermore, the destruction of these natural habitats poses serious threats to the area’s wildlife populations.

Geography Resources


Map of ancient Mesopotomia superimposed on modern Iraq and neighboring states. Credit: Goran tek-en – Based on Karte von Mesopotamien CC BY-SA 3.0

In the ancient world, Iraq was known as Mesopotamia, the area that scholars call the “Cradle of Civilization.” Mesopotamia was home to the Sumerians, an agricultural people who by 2900 BCE had organized themselves into city-states each ruled by a separate dynasty. The most important of these city-states were Uruk and Ur in southern Mesopotamia. As early as the 4th millennium BCE, the Sumerians developed cuneiform, the world’s first writing system, and penned the oldest story in written history, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”.

In 2334 BCE, King Sargon the Great from the city-state of Akkad conquered all of Mesopotamia, starting with Uruk. Sargon was the world’s first emperor, and extended his empire beyond Mesopotamia into parts of modern-day Turkey and Syria. This brought people who worshipped different gods and spoke different languages under the rule of the Akkadians. Sargon ruled until 2279 BCE after which his dynasty continued for another 82 years. The Akkadian Empire, however, fell in 2197 BCE to Persian raiders from the Zagros Mountains to the east.

Cuneiform tablet featuring a tally of sheep and goats, from Tello, southern Iraq. © Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

By the 2nd millennium BCE, a group of nomads from the west called the Amorites invaded Mesopotamia. The Amorites founded dynasties in the city-states of Eshnunna, Larsa, Isin, and Babylon. In 1792 BCE, Babylon dynastic leader, King Hammurabi, conquered Mesopotamia, resulting in the formation of the First Babylonian Empire over which he presided as king until his death. He was among the first to create a written set of laws called “Hammurabi’s Code.” These laws were written in cuneiform (right) on large stone pillars that were displayed in cities. Hammurabi’s Code was extensive and addressed commercial, property and family issues. The Assyrians in the city-state of Ashur rose to prominence around the same time that Babylon did, but it was not until 1220 BCE that Babylon became part of the Assyrian empire.

Various empires ruled Mesopotamia during the following centuries. Cyrus the Great of Persia invaded Mesopotamia in 539 BCE (Achaemenid Dynasty), followed by Alexander the Great and his successor dynasty, the Seleucids, in 331 BCE. The Roman Emperor Trajan claimed the region in the 2nd century CE. The area was then conquered and ruled by the Parthians, a group of Persians from northern Iran, until their defeat by the Persian Sassanid dynasty in 224 CE.

The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula brought substantial change to the region of present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, known collectively as the Levant. Under the Rashidun caliphs (chief rulers) who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leaders of the Islamic community, Persia, the Levant, and much of North Africa were incorporated into the Islamic Empire by 654. In 661, a succession crisis precipitated the rise of the Umayyad dynasty, which took control of the empire and established its capital in Damascus. A significant transformation took place in the Middle East as the majority of the population adopted Islam and the Arabic script. The Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 and moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The Abbasid civilization flourished in the Levant for several centuries and Baghdad enjoyed prosperity as the center of the Muslim world.

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The invasion of the Mongols under Hulagu Khan ended Abbasid control of the Levant in 1258. The Mongols sacked and burned the city of Baghdad and killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Musta’sim. The event was lamented throughout the Muslim world, and the influence of Iraq declined as continual skirmishes for power ravaged the area. The region then passed through the hands of several Turkic tribes during the 14th and 15th centuries until it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1534. Iraq was a battleground for the Persian Safavid Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries. Control of Iraq shifted several times between the two warring powers. In 1747, the Mamluk dynasty from the region of Georgia succeeded in establishing autonomy in Iraq. This lasted less than a century as control of Iraq returned to the Ottomans in 1831.

As the Ottoman Empire declined in the 19th century, the British and French made plans for the future of a post-Ottoman Middle East. World War I pitted the Ottoman Empire against the British and French alliance, providing an ideal opportunity for European powers to become directly involved in Middle Eastern affairs. Seeking to mobilize an increasingly nationalistic Arab population that had quietly resented Ottoman rule for years, the British and French orchestrated an uprising known as the Arab Revolt with the help of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. British officers such as T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) helped end Ottoman control of the Levant by 1918. With the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the British and French divided the regions of the Middle East and Anatolia (present-day Turkey) into British and French spheres of influence.

Known as the mandate system, the division of the Levant into separate administrative regions was based heavily on the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French. France received what is today Syria and Lebanon, while the British administered the provinces of Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (present-day Jordan). These divisions were finalized under the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 and both nations prepared their mandates for eventual independence. The British mandate formed modern-day Iraq by combining three distinct Ottoman provinces—Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul—into a unified political entity. The British installed a monarchy and proclaimed Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, the third son of the Sharif of Mecca, as king in August 1921. The British granted Iraqi independence in 1932, but continued to maintain military bases throughout the country.

The Kingdom of Iraq experienced significant instability in the next four decades. King Faisal died in 1933 and was succeeded by Ghazi bin Faisal. Ghazi bin Faisal died only 6 years later, in 1939, in a car accident. A common theory by Iraqis at the time was that he was killed on orders from Nuri al-Said, the then Prime Minister, because Faisal had plans for unification of Iraq and Kuwait. Ghazi bin Faisal was succeeded by Faisal II, who was only four years old when he became king. His regent, Abd al-Ellah, ruled the country in his place.

Abd al-Ellah’s tenure was interrupted by a military coup under the direction of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, former prime minister under Abd Al-Ellah and an Arab nationalist, in 1941. Rashid Ali had significant ties to the Axis Powers and the British invaded Iraq on May 2, 1941, in order to reestablish the monarchy and expel the French (who had become the Axis-supporting Vichy French) from Syria. By May 31, the British succeeded in restoring Abd al-Ellah to power, but continued their military occupation of Iraq until October 1947.

Faisal II came of age and directly ruled over Iraq from 1953. His reign was marked by political inexperience, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id and Abd al-Ellah made many decisions for him. The monarchy was unpopular among the people despite the king’s efforts to modernize the country. The cities of Najaf and Hayy protested against the government in 1956, and on July 14, 1958, a group of military officers under the command of Abd al-Karim Qasim violently overthrew the monarchy and killed Faisal II along with many members of his family. Qasim then established the Republic of Iraq and ruled the country as the self-appointed prime minister.

Soon after Qasim attained the presidency in 1958, a decade-long conflict broke out between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish population living in northern Iraq. The Kurds, ethnically distinct from Arabs and geographically spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, were denied self-determination at the end of Mandate period. Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mustafa Barzani and Qasim had agreed to grant Kurdish autonomy shortly after Qasim became president. Qasim, however, reneged on his agreement and the Kurds rebelled against the Iraqis. After 100,000 casualties, the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970 was approved by both parties, which granted the Kurds greater representation within the Iraqi government. Despite this agreement, tensions continued to simmer between the two groups.

Soon after Qasim attained the presidency in 1958, a decade-long conflict broke out between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish population living in northern Iraq. The Kurds, ethnically distinct from Arabs and geographically spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, were denied self-determination at the end of Britain’s Mandate period. Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Mustafa Barzani, and Qasim had agreed to grant Kurdish autonomy shortly after Qasim became president. Qasim, however, went back on his agreement and the Kurds rebelled against the Iraqis. This culminated in the first Iraqi-Kurdish War, which lasted from 11th September 1962 until 1970. There were an estimated 75,000-100,000 casualties as a result of the war. During the peace process the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970 was approved by both parties, which granted the Kurds greater representation within the Iraqi government. Despite this agreement, tensions continued to simmer between the two groups, and negotiations fell through in 1974. This resulted in the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War, after which many Kurds were forced to flee the country when Iraqi forces took over the northern territories.

Throughout the 1960s, Iraq experienced a series of coups and counter-coups that contributed to its political instability. Qasim’s rule alienated many factions within Iraq, especially the military and the secular Ba’ath Party. On February 8, 1963, the Ba’ath Party overthrew and killed Qasim in what became known as the Ramadan Revolution. The Ba’ath Party was in turn overthrown in a bloodless coup in November 1963 and replaced with a government in line with the Arab Nationalist beliefs of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. By 1968, the Ba’ath Party had made a resurgence and initiated another coup which successfully installed Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr as president on July 17, 1968 with Saddam Hussein as his deputy. Hussein gradually consolidated his power in this role and became the fifth president of Iraq on July 16, 1979.

The overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1979 and the ascendency of Saddam Hussein added to tensions that had been building between the two countries over  their national borders on the Shatt al-Arab waterway. When Hussein ordered his military across the Iranian border in September 1980, it sparked a decade-long conflict that killed or wounded over 1 million soldiers and civilians and economically crippled both nations. Despite Iraq’s pro-Soviet tendencies, the United States and most Gulf nations supported Hussein over the staunchly anti-Western Iranian regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. The United States and Gulf nations supplied weapons to Iraq’s military and the U.S. Navy participated in limited naval warfare campaigns against Iran following repeated Iranian attacks on Gulf oil tankers.

The conflict also enflamed regional tensions with the Kurds. Though the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) lost most of their fighting power after a Kurdish-Iraqi conflict in 1974, the Iran-Iraq War presented the opportunity for the Kurds to rebel by supporting Iranian troops. This proved disastrous for the Kurds in 1988 when the Iraqis initiated the “Anfal Campaign,” a brutal endeavor of repression in response to the rebellion. In the ensuing conflict, the Iraqi military used chemical weapons on thousands of villages in Kurdish territory, resulting in the deaths of 50,000-100,000 civilians by 1989, according to Human Rights Watch. The massacre greatly weakened the Kurdish insurgency, which temporarily ceased its actions in response to the repression. The Iraqi military also used chemical attacks against Iran during the ongoing war. Iran reciprocated by capturing the southern Al-Faw Peninsula, which was the main point of Iraqi access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The war finally ended in 1987 with the signing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598. This resolution effectively returned both countries to their pre-war borders, with very few gains on either side. Nonetheless, tensions between the two countries remained high throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Years of warfare severely damaged Iraq’s economy, so Saddam Hussein looked to Kuwait’s oil fields to fund the rebuilding of Iraq. In August 1990, Iraq annexed Kuwait and invaded Kuwait City, expelling the ruling family who fled to Saudi Arabia. In response, the United States and a coalition of Gulf and European countries invaded Kuwait under Operation Desert Storm and expelled Hussein’s army within the year. The United Nations also placed severe economic sanctions on Iraq in an attempt to rid the country of its biological and chemical weapons.

The 1990s in Iraq were marked by the ongoing repression of minority groups by Saddam Hussein and mounting tensions between Iraqis and the Kurds. Two prominent factions of the Kurds, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had quarreled for years over the future of Kurdistan. In 1994, these tensions escalated into a civil war that lasted nearly three years. By 1997, both sides had signed the Washington Agreement, mediated by the United States, which divided the Kurdish region into separate PUK- and KDP-ruled areas. The agreement also banned Iraqi military units from entering the Kurdish regions, with the United States vowing to support the Kurds against Iraqi military aggression.

By late 2002, increased concerns within the first George H.W. Bush administration over Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) prompted the United States to call for the overthrow of Hussein’s regime. Hussein had stockpiled biological and chemical weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, but a report from the United Nations Special Commission stated that this program had ceased upon the conclusion of  Operation Desert Storm (1991). The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also prompted the United States to accuse Iraq of having ties with Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks, though no evidence of these ties has ever been found. Nevertheless, after United Nations weapons inspectors were barred from entering some of Iraq’s secret facilities, the United States invaded the country on March 20, 2003. Coalition forces, which included the U.S., Britain, Australia, and Poland, quickly captured Baghdad and overthrew Hussein and the Ba’ath Party. They searched former weapons production facilities and storage sites, but did not find any WMDs. Hussein fled his palace in Baghdad, but was captured in December 2003. The interim Iraqi government installed by the United States under Prime Minister Iyad Allawi tried Saddam Hussein for war crimes and executed him on December 30, 2006.

The U.S. invasion changed the political dynamics in Iraq. The Ba’ath Party was declared illegal and its members prevented from holding office, and the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq were given more independence from the Iraqi federal government. With U.S. support, Iraq held formal elections for its new government in December 2005, and Nouri al-Maliki became Prime Minister on May 20, 2006. The invasion also created a violent insurgency against United States forces and between Sunni and Shia factions seeking to establish dominance. This fighting reached its peak between 2006 and 2008, a period that some scholars call a civil war. Al-Qaeda, by that time firmly entrenched in Iraq, launched attacks against coalition troops and government targets. Violence decreased following a surge in U.S. military forces in 2007, but sectarian tensions and violence continued after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011.

Instability continued to plague Iraq after the withdrawal of the United States’ forces. Religious violence has increased in recent years, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq has remained a deadly force. Iraqi Sunnis have felt increasingly marginalized by the new Shia government and have claimed that programs intended to stem sectarian violence have negatively impacted? the Sunni minority. Protests have taken place continually since 2012, and militant Sunni groups eventually rose up against U.S.-supported Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s government. Sunni rebel groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict have invigorated minority groups in Iraq and spurred continued violence. The city of Fallujah in the Anbar province, the largest province in Iraq, has become one of the most unstable areas in the country. In January 2014, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL), an al-Qaeda affiliated group, allied with local Sunni tribesmen resentful of Maliki’s Shia government and took over the area. Haider Al-Abadi succeeded Maliki in September 2014.

Since then, ISIS has conquered vast swaths of both Iraqi and Syrian territory and threatens to seep into Turkey through the tenuously Kurdish-controlled areas as well. Major infrastructure, such as the Mosul Dam, has been seized by ISIS and the group is taking advantage of oil reserves in Iraq as a source of income. Ashton Carter, the United States Secretary of Defense, has said “the U.S. mission to train and support local forces does involve a combat aspect,” though the last of the American combat troops were withdrawn in 2010. . Religious and ethnic minorities have also fled from their homes. The numbers of lives lost and refugees and internally displaced persons have risen dramatically.

The western Anbar province continues to be a center of intense competition for control between ISIS and the Iraqi government. Its capital, Ramadi, has been alternately in the hands of either side since 2014 due its prized strategic location on the Euphrates and its westward accessibility to both Syria and Jordan. The city has been left in rubble and a majority of its people have fled the turmoil. Though both Iraqi and American leaders celebrated the December 2015 recapture of Ramadi from IS, Islamist extremists remain in southwestern pockets of the city. There is no foreseeable end to the Islamic State’s conquest and the multitude of actors in the conflict further contributes to the fractured state of the country.

By April 2017 several important Iraqi cities had been recaptured by Iraqi and Kurdish groups. One estimate points to 15% of territories having been returned to Syria and Iraq from ISIS. Currently the city of Mosul in Iraq is the center of fighting between ISIS, external governments, and different rebel groups. Through progress made in the fight to liberate territory in the north of Iraq, Kurdish contingencies have been able to retake cities and towns they believe should be Kurdish territory, and in June 2017 it was announced that the Kurds are planning to hold a referendum on independence, with their newly gained territories as a legitimizing factor for their own Kurdish state.

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider Al-Abadi

Iraq’s government is based upon the constitution drafted and ratified in 2005, which established an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. Current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is head of the executive branch. He is responsible for appointing the Council of Ministers, which act as his cabinet. The elected council of representatives is the legislative branch, and the supreme court rules on judicial matters in the country. Much of Iraq’s legal system is based on French civil law, and the constitution guarantees civil liberties, such as freedom of religion and speech. These liberties are affected by two exemption clauses. The first is that the council of representatives has the power to define the scope of freedoms. The second is that no freedom can conflict with the teachings of Islam or Islamic morality. Those who belong to minority Muslim groups or who are non-Muslims are sometimes discriminated against or targets of threats or violence due to these clauses.

History and Government Resources


The Shatt al-Arab river, the southern border between Iraq and Iran, has been a major point of contention between the two nations. Since it is the only outlet to the Persian Gulf from Iraq, it is important to the economic stability of the nation that is otherwise landlocked and whose early wealth stemmed from oil exports.The dividing line between Iran and Iraq on the river, however, has never been firmly established despite many treaties attempting to solve the problem, including the Peace Treaty of 1639, the Constantinople Protocol of 1913, and the Algiers Agreement of 1975. The Shatt al-Arab was one of the reasons behind the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

There is a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Approximately 3.9 million Iraqis remain displaced. Syrians fleeing their civil war make make up a large number of the refugees in Iraq; there were just over 245,000 in 2016. There are approximately 11,500 West Bank and Gaza Strip refugees. In addition, there are also 5,500 Iranian refugees in Iraq. The Iranian refugees are primarily located in Camp Ashraf, 50 miles from the border with Iran, and compose the Iranian opposition group People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK).  Lastly, Iraqis themselves have been displaced or fled ISIS advances resulting in a proliferation of temporary refugees and formal refugee camps. Iraqis in exile following the previous wars have been affected as well.

International & Regional Resources


Iraq’s population is mostly Arab (75-80%). Kurds make up 15-20%, and Turkoman, Assyrian, Yazidi, or other ethnic minorities make up the remaining 5%. The Kurds are semi-nomadic and speak Kurdish, which is the official language in their region.

Population of Iraq

Arab 75%
Kurds 20%
Other 5%

The population decreased significantly due to the Gulf War and the economic sanctions that were imposed by the UN in the years after the war. This caused a lower birth rate and many Iraqis fled to surrounding countries both in exile and in search of a better life. Recently, however, Iraq’s population has begun to grow at an annual rate of 2.93%. As of February 2016, the population of Iraq is estimated to be 37,056, 169; this makes Iraq the fourth largest country in the Middle East and North Africa.

The majority of the population lives in urban areas (69%), and there has been an increase in the number of people moving to the cities looking for jobs (3.01% annual rate of change). This migration has caused a mixing of ethno-religious backgrounds in many cities, with the exception of Kurds who are concentrated in the north.

For the past two decades, the government has made 6 years of education mandatory. The majority of children continue with their education making the average time spent in school 10 years (11 for men, 9 for women). 79.7% (86% of men, and 73.7% of women) of the population is literate. In order to go to college, students must pass an exam in their last year of general education. The last two years of high school are dedicated to preparation for this exam. If students fail to pass the exam, they are allowed to go to a vocational school, but not college.

Male Literacy

Female Literacy

Education is free in Iraq and private schools are permitted only at the university level. There are several colleges throughout Iraq, with a concentration in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. The University of Baghdad is the largest higher education institution in the country and the second largest in the Middle East following the University of Cairo. About 80,000 students are enrolled, though enrollment and completion have dropped as a result of ongoing violence.

Iraq moved to create a centralized healthcare system in the 1970s funded through oil profits. To do this, they imported everything from medicine and medical equipment to nurses and doctors. Before 1990 and the Gulf War, 97% of urban dwellers and 71% of people living in the rural areas had access to free healthcare. The conflict essentially reset the country back to its pre-1970s healthcare system in which infrastructure was underdeveloped and medical personnel were not widely available. Iraqi healthcare infrastructure has yet to develop beyond this reduced capacity due in large part to national security concerns and a lack of reliable utilities. Due to ongoing instability in the region for over two decades, key indicators such as infant and maternal mortality rates have in Iraq have lagged behind those of its neighbors. The infant mortality rate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was 14.58 deaths for every 1,000 births in 2014; in contrast, for the same year in Iraq, the rate was significantly higher at 37.53.

People & Language Resources


Approximately 99% of the population is Muslim. 51% is Shia and 42% is Sunni; 5% do not claim a sect. The remaining population (1%) is made up by a number of religions minority groups such Christians, Yazidis and Mandeans, among others. In ancient times, Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions based on the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster, was the predominant religion. Today less than 190,000 people worldwide practice Zoroastrianism.


Iraq has a rich cultural history, interwoven with religious traditions and language. Kebabs and falafel are popular in Iraqi cuisine, and koftas, a type of meatball, were first made in Iraq. Rice is an integral part of almost every meal. As for holidays, Iraqi Army Day, celebrated on January 6 of every year, commemorates the beginning of the Iraqi Army in 1921.

Culture Resources


iraqi-rug-merchant-1502290-1280x960Ancient Iraqi art is classified by the period during which it was created (Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian etc.). Stone sculptures show up consistently throughout many of the periods. One impressive sculpture from the Assyrian period is that of a human-headed winged bull made for King Sargon II between 710-705 BCE. Other surviving art from ancient Mesopotamia includes clay statues and pottery. The Baghdad battery, a clay jar from the Sassanid Period (224–651), may have also served as a rudimentary battery, and is an interesting example of Iraqi pottery.

In addition to three-dimensional art, many engravings have been found on the facades of buildings or carved into the sides of large pottery. In the Babylonian period, engravings were made on a cylinder seal. Cylinder seals were usually one inch long and featured engraved scenes or written characters that could be transferred to wet clay when the cylinder was rolled along it. The Hematite cylinder seal (1800 BCE) from southern Iraq portrays two men fighting a bull-man and an inverted lion, reflecting the common theme of men and deities in conflict that was popular during the time. The details of many engravings are still clear today and depict rich cultural tradition. Due to conflict over the past two decades, however, many historic works of art have been stolen or lost. In recent years, some pieces of art have begun to make their way back to Iraq and museum curators continue to search for missing Iraqi art.

Modern Iraqi art receives little attention from the Western art community though it is a large movement. Abdul Qadir Al Rassam (1882-1952) was the first well-known modern Iraqi painter and a leader in the realism movement. Al Rassam was an oil painter who focused on recreating realistic Iraqi landscapes. Most of his paintings are now owned by private collectors. Female artists, such as Suad al-Attar (1942 – ), have also been successful in Iraq and around the world. Al-Attar was the first woman to hold a solo exhibition in Iraq. Her paintings, which typically intertwine Mesopotamian stories and modern-day Iraq, are dreamlike and heavy in symbolism. “Gilgamesh and Enkido,” for example, reimagines the 4,000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh by inserting a female protagonist in an all-male legend. These artists’ experimentation with color, style, and technique earned their work a place in the modern art section of the Iraq Museum. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, during a period of 36 hours beginning on April 8, 2003, the museum was looted and nearly 15,000 works disappeared. Original estimates were much higher, in the range of 170,000. Stolen goods began trickling back to the museum after authorities made statements that there would be impunity and no questions asked if thieves returned items to the museum. Domestic raids and foreign governments have further contributed to the recovery of some materials that found their way into the black market .  U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos led a security, investigative, and recovery team to mitigate the impact of the looting; he later earned a National Humanities Medal for his efforts. Iraqi art has also found its way into the United States where museums have held exhibitions exclusively featuring Iraqi art.

Art Resources


Iraq is the home to many famous destinations that demonstrate the greatness of the empires that have ruled the land. Babylon, built during the height of the Babylonian empire, was a city known for its heavily fortified surrounding walls and for housing one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens. Recent research suggests, however, that the Hanging Gardens were actually located in Ninevah, some 300 miles north. Babylon is also famous for the Bible’s many references to its Tower of Babel.

Iraqis have recreated some of the famous structures from their ancient history, such as the ziggurat. Ziggurats were rectangular stepped towers made out of bricks that sometimes housed temples on the top level. The exact purpose of ziggurats is unknown, though they have been linked to religion. The city of Ur, a Sumerian city-state, contains the partially restored ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur which stands 21 meters (65 feet) above the desert. This ziggurat is one of the best-preserved in Iran and Iraq. Ur was once a coastal city and likely flourished similarly to Babylon until a drought in 2000 BCE. This drought and the decline of Ur is thought to have led to the extinction of the Sumerian language.

The Abbasids, the last civilization in power before the Mongol invasion, also left impressive ruins. The Abbasid Palace built in the twelfth century is the last palace standing in Baghdad. Archaeological excavations have concluded that the structure was more likely used as a madrasa (school) rather than a palace. The two-story building features impressive arches and intricate brickwork and has been partially reconstructed for its historical value. Another site of Abbasid ruins is the ancient city of Samarra, the second capital of the Abbasid civilization. Because the city was abandoned, Samarra’s original architecture and art are remarkably well preserved. Samarran citizens pioneered carved stucco for buildings as well as a new ceramic that imitated precious metals.

Sites Resources


Iraq has a rich musical history and a strong tradition of maqam, a musical style in which the musician improvises on the original music within a set of rules. Each rule set, anja, involves specific changes to the music, such as altering the pitch or notes. These improvisations vary based on the person’s mood or the day. The main instruments used in Iraqi music are the oud (pear-shaped instrument similar to a European lute), santur (a trapezoid box with 92 strings) and joza (a four-string spike fiddle). Lyrics are often poetry set to the rhythm of music. This poetry is generally from famous or ancient Arab texts or influenced by them.

Contemporary music in Iraq incorporates traditional lyrics played with a mix of modern and traditional instruments. Like in many other Middle Eastern nations, Western musical genres and artists have become popular in Iraq. The Voice of Youth radio station, for example, plays American hip-hop and rock and is conducted almost exclusively in English. Some Iraqi artists also enjoy widespread popularity. Kadim Al Sahir is one of the most successful singers in the Middle East and known for favoring both Arab classical and contemporary pop music. His hit “La Ya Sadiki” (“No, My Friend”) used maqams that had been unused for decades.

During Saddam Hussein’s rule, many Iraqi artists fled the country in fear of persecution. Music that was considered inappropriate or critical to the regime was banned. In recent years however, artists have slowly returned to Iraq despite lingering violence due to extremist factions. While music censorship has decreased since the fall of Saddam Hussein, religious extremists who disagree with the content and message of contemporary music have made nightclubs and music stores bombing targets.

Music Resources


Mesopotamians enjoyed a wide variety of games and sports. Hunting large exotic animals, such as elephants and lions was popular among Assyrian nobles. Boxing was also popular and is often depicted in pottery from ancient Iraq. Wrestling was likely common as well, since Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh is referred to as a wrestler. At the Arab Men’s Wrestling Championship in 2013, the Iraqi team won 4 gold medals, 1 silver, and 1 bronze medal.

The most popular sport in Iraq is football (U.S. soccer). Their team, the Lions of Mesopotamia, has enjoyed moderate success. They won the Asian Cup in 2007 and the Arab Nations cup in 1964, ‘66, ‘85, and ‘88. Iraq has participated in most Summer Olympic Games since 1948; they plan to participate in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Abdul Wahid Aziz has won their only medal, a bronze in weightlifting from the 1960 games.

Sports Resources


Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on Iraq

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News about Iraq, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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A private English language online newspaper

National Iraqi News Agency – Founded following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and dissolution of the former Iraqi News Agency

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“The Kings: From Baghdad to Babylon”

This series, featured on the History Channel, traces history from ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) to modern times.

Iraqi Culture

This website provides information on the Iraqi culture. Topics include history, urbanism, food, economy, social structure, gender roles, government, marriage, arts, medicine, and religion.

Iraqi Research Foundation for Analysis and Development

Iraqi-based staff of consultancy firm provides insight, access, and expertise to organizations seeking in-depth understanding of political, economic, and social realities in Iraq today.