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) on 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 emptying 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.
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 worshiped 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.
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 (a king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon) 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 CE. In 661 CE, a succession of crises precipitated the rise of the Umayyad dynasty, which took control of the empire and established its capital in Damascus. A significant transformation ensued 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.
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 a secretly arranged agreement between the French and the British, known as the Sykes-Picot. France was apportioned what is today Syria and Lebanon, while the British claimed 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 with unique ethnographic and religious communities — 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 sought to unify 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. 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 starting in 1953. His reign was marked by political inexperience, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id and former regent 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 assumed leadership 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 autonomy to the Kurds after Qasim became president. Qasim, however, reneged 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 (read news report below) 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 Baath Party. On February 8, 1963, the Baath Party overthrew and killed Qasim in what became known as the Ramadan Revolution. The Baath 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 Baath Party had made a comeback 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 ascendancy 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 revived regional tensions with the Kurds. Though the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) lost most of their fighting power after the 2nd Iraqi-Kurdish War 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 launched the “Anfal Campaign,” a brutal act 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; Kurdish officials have put the number as high as 182,000. The massacre greatly weakened the Kurdish insurgency, which temporarily ceased its actions in response to the attacks. The Iraqi military also used chemical weapons against Iran during the ongoing war. Iran retaliated 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. This episode is referred to as the Gulf War.
The 1990s in Iraq were marked by continuous crackdowns on minority groups, particularly against the Kurdish population. 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, this dispute erupted 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, in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks and increased concerns within the first George H.W. Bush administration over Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the United States began 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 United States accused Iraq of having ties with Al-Qaeda, the group found to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks; however, no evidence of these ties has ever been found. After Iraq denied access to United Nations weapons inspectors to some of its weapons production 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 Baath 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 tried Saddam Hussein for war crimes and executed him on December 30, 2006.
The U.S. invasion changed the political dynamics in Iraq. Hussein’s ruling Baath Party was declared illegal and its members prevented from holding office. This de-Baathification effort was part of a systematic policy undertaken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that took over control of the country after Hussein’s removal. The goal was to remove any Baath influence on the new Iraqi political system which the G.W. Bush Administration designed and orchestrated. All public sector employees affiliated with the party were removed from their positions and banned from future employment with the government. Furthermore, on May 23, 2003, CPA head Paul Bremer issued Order No. 2 which called for the complete dissolution of the Iraqi military, resulting in the unemployment and loss of pensions of approximately 500,000 individuals (Ferguson, Charles. “No End in Sight: Iraq’s Descent into Chaos”, 2007). Many critics argue that this order specifically spurred the development of the armed insurgency that led to the spread of the Islamic State; according to one report, “Instead of giving Iraq a fresh start with a new army, it helped create a vacuum that ISIS has filled.”
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 unabated with the withdrawal of the United States’ forces. Sectarian-based violence has increased in recent years and political dynamics in the country facilitated the rise of terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, grew out of a frustration among Sunnis who felt increasingly marginalized by the new Shia-led government.Sunni Iraqis made claims that programs intended to stem sectarian violence have negatively impacted the Sunni minority. While Hussein’s regime elevated the position of the country’s Sunni minority, CPA pick Maliki emphasized Shia allies and preferred a centralized government that ignored regional cultural differences. Protests took place beginning in 2012 and militant Sunni groups eventually rose up against Prime Minister Maliki’s government. AQI’s strategy of terror and violence created a division with Al Qaeda’s founding members, leading to an eventual split that ultimately evolved into the Islamic State (first as Islamic State of Iraq and later as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or alternately, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Sunni rebel groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict have invigorated minority groups in Iraq and spurred continued violence. In June 2014, the Islamic State began to receive global attention when its fighters overran Mosul and then moved southwards towards the capital Baghdad, routing the Iraqi army and threatening to eradicate the country’s many ethnic and religious minorities. Since that point, ISIS conquered vast swaths of both Iraqi and Syrian territory. Major infrastructure, such as the Mosul Dam, was seized by ISIS and the group appropriated oil profits to fund its cause. Religious and ethnic minorities were forced to flee from their homes, and the numbers of refugees and IDPs surged.
At its peak, the Islamic State once controlled 1/3 of Iraq. The western Anbar province was a center of intense competition for control between ISIS and the Iraqi government. Its capital, Ramadi, was 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. Iraqi forces recaptured Ramadi in 2015 before continuing to other IS strongholds in Anbar Province, such as Fallujah, in mid-2016. By August 2017, several important Iraqi cities had been recaptured by Iraqi and Kurdish groups with the support of American and coalition troops providing training, equipment and logistics to Iraqi Security Forces. One major change was the election of Haider Al-Abadi as prime minister in 2014. His efforts to overcome sectarian divisions by giving equal representation to Iraq’s different constituencies as well as the involvement of foreign military aid have proved vital to quashing ISIS. The redevelopment of both the military and internal security forces with an emphasis on pluralistic, mixed-sect membership has unified the fractured population. One estimate points to 60% of territories having been returned to Syria and Iraq from ISIS. Mosul was liberated in August, and troops continue to isolate IS fighters in northwestern Iraq. Kurdish contingencies have also been instrumental in reclaiming 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.
In September of 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan voted in a referendum to seek independence from Iraq. In response, Iraq’s Parliament asked Prime Minister al-Abadi to deploy troops to Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that is considered one of several disputed areas held by Kurdish troops but claimed by Iraq. Now that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been generally forced out of Iraq, the country is now faced with losing its territory and access to major oil fields if the Kurds do secede. Although this referendum does not mean an immediate declaration of independence, it does spark a move towards the establishment of a Kurdish state, despite the fact that Iraq has refused any negotiations with the Kurds as it relates to this topic.
2018 Iraq Elections
Parliamentary elections in Iraq were held on May 12, 2018 after millions of displaced people returned to their homes in Iraq following the military’s defeat of ISIS in December. However, the country is still plagued with the devastation left by ISIS as well as the internal conflicts within the Shia party. With all this being said, these elections were thought to mark a new chapter in Iraqi history and a major shift in the balance of politics, as 7,000 candidates competed for 329 seats.
In 2014, three main Shia parties ran for parliamentary seats: the State of Law coalition which merged with the Badr Organization, a party led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition. These groups attempted to consolidate on several occasions but ultimately failed, leaving the 2018 elections with an even greater division of five Shia coalitions: Nasr Coalition led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the State of Law coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Fatah coalition led by head of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri, the Hikma coalition led by cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform, which is mainly composed of the Sadrist Movement and Iraq’s Communist Party under the sponsorship of Muqtada al-Sadr.
This separation and subsequent creation of new Shia coalitions, much of which has stemmed from the power struggle between al-Abadi and al-Maliki, has weakened the Shia image due to the blatant disunification. Similarly, the split between the new arm and older generation within ISCI has supplemented this image of division within the Shia party. Both of these significant changes within Shia politics have suggested the emergence of different groups, such as Fatah and Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, to transform the balance of power in Iraq. Al-Abadi was considered the hopeful candidate for change by the United States, as he has consistently engaged in ameliorating relations between the United States and Iran as a way to avoid proxy wars in Iraq.
In addition to schisms within Shia leadership, the Sunni party has experienced arguably even more severe division. Sunni leadership has ultimately consisted of Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi’s coalition, al-Qarar al-Iraqi, challenging Ayad Allawi’s secular coalition, which is comprised of current Speaker of the Parliament Selim Jubouri and former Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq. Overall, dissatisfactions with established politicians as well as power vacuums left post-ISIS have led to the opportunity for local newcomers to gain traction.
Similarly, the Kurdish party no longer stands wholly united. Although the main Kurdish party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), still remains powerful, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has faced internal division creating a number of smaller parties, most popular of which is the Goran (Change) coalition. For a long time, the Kurds have been the ‘swing factor’ in terms of the political balance of Iraq, so their continuing splintering has caused questions leading up to the elections.
On election day, May 12, 2018, Iraq experienced its worst voter turnout yet with only 44.5 percent of the total population voting. This lack in voter participation was predominantly due to the large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) unable or uninterested in voting. Regardless, the Iraqi electoral commision announced that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition won the majority of parliamentary seats. al-Sadr’s coalition won more than 1.3 million votes, six out of Iraq’s eighteen provinces including Baghdad, and 54 out of 329 seats in parliament. The Sadrist Movement began primarily in 2003, working to provide basic services such as access to water, food, and health care within Sadr City, especially during the era of sanctions on Iraq. Since the US invasion of 2005, al-Sadr has criticized the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and even after the removal of U.S. troops in 2011, he still challenges U.S. foreign policy within the region. However, in recent years, al-Sadr has revitalized his image as one working on behalf of the poor with the priority of eliminating corruption.
These results came as a shock to most of those monitoring the election, although voters made it clear that Iraq was in need of a change in leadership with policies and ambitions that differed from the same elite typically dominating Iraqi politics. In addition to this, many attribute al-Sadr’s win to the aforementioned number of IDPs who could not or did not vote, skewing the election in al-Sadr’s favor.
In addition to al-Sadr’s victory, the Fatah coalition won 52 seats, al-Abadi’s party won 49, the State of Law Coalition won 24 seats, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party won 27 seats. The major task of the parliament in the coming months is to form a new government and elect a prime minister, parliament speaker, and president.
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.
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
Though the United States military were completely withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, since August 2014, the US-led coalition has conducted more than 12,400 air strikes against IS targets in the country. Most attacks have been carried out by US aircraft, but those from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands and the UK have also taken part. As of 2017, there were approximately 5,000 American troops in Iraq.
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).
Though gains made by Iraqi security forces have resulted in the return of many refugees and IDPs to their homes, a humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Iraq particularly because of the civilians trapped in conflict zones. Approximately 3.4 million Iraqis remain displaced. Syrians fleeing their civil war make up a large number of the refugees in Iraq; there were close to 250,000 Syrians in Iraq in 2017. There are also approximately 11,500 Palestinian refugees. In addition, there are an estimated 6,000-7,000 Iranian refugees living 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). The Iraqis who have been displaced or fled ISIS advances have given rise to a proliferation of temporary refugees and formal refugee camps. Iraqis in exile following the previous wars have been affected as well.
International & Regional Issues Resources
Iraq’s population is 75-80% Arab. 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
Iraq’s population is 75-80% Arab. Kurds make up 15-20%, and Turkoman, Assyrian, Yazidi, or other ethnic minorities make up roughly 1%. The Kurds are semi-nomadic and speak Kurdish, which is the official language in their region.
The population has fluctuated significantly due to the numerous conflicts and associated sanctions that have been imposed going back to the 90-91 Gulf War. This caused a lower birth rate and many Iraqis fled to surrounding countries both in exile and in search of a better life. The annual population growth rate is 2.95%. As of June 2017, the population of Iraq is estimated to be 38,654,287, making Iraq the fourth most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa.
The majority of the population lives in urban areas (70%), 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.
UNESCO reported that prior to the first Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had one of the best educational performances in the region. Primary school gross enrollment rate was 100% and literacy levels were high. Education has been severely impacted by conflict and upheaval since the 2003 invasion. Officially the government mandates 6 years of education; the destruction of schools and general insecurity have kept many children from gaining a formal education during this time. As Iraqi forces have reclaimed IS territory, schools have begun operating again. Reliable statistics regarding enrollment and literacy, therefore, are difficult to obtain. 22% of the population was illiterate in 2013 and Iraqi authorities with the Ministry of Education planned to establish more than 500 literacy centers. 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.
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. According to the World Health Organization, the health status of Iraq’s population has suffered major blows due to decades of war and economic sanctions. This has resulted in a severe drop in Iraq’s gross domestic product and consequently its public expenditure on health. Health services have deteriorated and the sector has faced continuous shortages in drugs and other supplies. Moreover, the current ongoing conflict and poor security situation has further damaged the country’s health infrastructure. Many health professionals have fled for safety to neighboring countries and abroad and the population’s access to basic health services has become increasingly impaired. Key indicators such as infant and maternal mortality rates 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.
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 of a number of religious minority groups such Christians, Yazidis, Chaldeans and Mandeans. Many non-Muslim Iraqi citizens have had to flee the country due to persecution under consecutive regimes including Hussein’s and ISIS, particularly the Yazidi people, have been targeted. Since the country of Iraq was established, there has been intense conflict between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds in the north. There is more information on the Kurdish conflict in the section titled “History & Government”.
In ancient times, Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, and it is based on the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster. Today less than 190,000 people worldwide practice Zoroastrianism.
Iraq has a rich cultural history, interwoven with religious traditions and language. Its cultural history is among the oldest in the world, Iraq being the home of ancient Mesopotamia, or the cradle of civilization. The country is known for its poets, painters, and sculptors. Iraq is also famous for producing fine handicrafts, including rugs. Unlike many Arab countries, Iraq embraces and celebrates the achievements of its past in pre-Islamic times.
Generosity and humility are valued in Iraqi culture. Men commonly hold hands or kiss when greeting each other, but this is typically not the case between men and women. Respect is given to the elderly and women, especially those with children.
Iraqi cuisine mirrors that of Syria and Lebanon, with strong influences from the culinary traditions of Turkey and Iran. Popular dishes include kebab (skewered meat, typically beef), falafel (fried chickpea balls), kofta (Iraqi meatballs were first made in Iraq) and masgouf (open-air-grilled carp). Meals typically begin with mezza, appetizers or salads similar to Spanish tapas. Mezza includes dips like baba ghanoush (baked eggplant) and hummus (chickpea) as well as small portions like warak enab (grape leaves stuffed with vegetables, rice and sometimes meat). Long-grain rice is a staple in Iraq and is served with most dishes.
There is a mix of Western and Eastern influence in the street fashion you see in everyday Iraq. When Iraq was first established as an independent state it was common to see both men and women in Western clothing.
In most urbanized areas women wear long pants, shirts with only half sleeves, and dress as they like. Many conservative Islamic Iraqi women dress as they please while at home or while in the homes of friends or family, away from the public eye and from unrelated male relatives—wearing jeans, t-shirts, and other Western or Iraqi traditional fashions while wearing more modest clothing – including the traditional abaya and hijab – in public.
Men’s fashion is also split into traditional and modern. Iraqi youths normally wear pants and t-shirts with modern brands. The brands are a favorite among the youth because it shows wealth; however like the women’s, these brands are not original, but more often knockoffs originating from China and Turkey. Traditional men’s fashion consists of a long gown, called a thawb. Men also wear traditional fabric hats, shamagh. The black band which holds the fabric in place is called agal.
Appearance was dramatically impacted by religious militants following the 2003 invasion. For instance, according to Reuters, after Islamic State conquered villages in northern Iraq, it spelled out in minute detail the rules of its self-proclaimed caliphate, from beard length to alms to guidelines for taking women as sex slaves. Islamic State documents and posters, as seen above obtained in villages captured by Iraqi forces, highlight a tight and comprehensive system of rule by the militants, who went to great lengths to explain their fundamentalist philosophy. Stories of mass shavings proliferated in western media after the liberation of numerous Iraqi cities.
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. 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 targeted nightclubs and music stores with terror attacks.
Ancient 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 there is an active 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. In 2017, owners of an American chain of stores, The Hobby Lobby, gained infamy and significant sanctions for their involvement in the illegal trade of Iraqi artifacts to be used in a forthcoming bible museum in Washington, DC (read more in link below).
Iraq is 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 are 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 is more likely to have been used as a madrasa (school) 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. Located on both sides of the Tigris River 130 km north of Baghdad, the length of the site from north to south is 41.5 km; its width varying from 8 km to 4 km. It testifies to the architectural and artistic innovations that developed there and spread to the other regions of the Islamic world and beyond. The 9th-century Great Mosque and its spiral minaret are among the numerous remarkable architectural monuments of the site, 80% of which remain to be excavated. In 2005 the top of the Malwiya minaret was damaged by a bomb. Iraqi police said insurgents blew up the top section of the (171 ft) tower, which had previously been used by U.S. soldiers as a lookout position, although US troops had pulled out of the site a month prior to the attack.
The city of Erbil is another great destination in Iraq. The city is in the Kurdish region of Iraq and sits on top of a tell (a hill created by generations of settlers rebuilding on the same land). Surrounding the inner city is a continuous wall of 19th century facades, which lends the city an image of an impenetrable fortress. The city is structured in a fan-like pattern, which dates back to its Ottoman era. Erbil has a long history and features in several cultural and religious records. Erbil corresponds to ancient Arbela, which was an important Assyrian political and religious center.
Several of Iraq’s ancient sites and artifacts have been destroyed by ISIS fighters. The group claims that the destruction of archaeological and holy sites is religiously motivated, saying they are ridding Iraq and Syria of religious influences that conflict with their own ideology. The group has targeted well-known ancient sites, Christian as well as Islamic, along with more modern graves and shrines belonging to other Muslim sects. ISIS has also been known to loot the sites they destroy, and they will then sell many of the stolen artifacts in order to finance their military operations. Larger sites that have been partially or fully destroyed by ISIS include Hatra, Nineveh, Nimrud, the Great Mosque of al-Nure, and Mosul museums and libraries.
Hatra was the capital of an independent kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, built in the third century BCE. It was a prominent trading center along the Silk Road, a fact that was reflected in its Greek and Roman architecture. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. A video released by ISIS in April 2015 showed fighters using sledgehammers and automatic weapons to destroy sculptures in several of the site’s largest buildings, which made the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, point out that ISIS was practicing a form of cultural cleansing in Iraq.
Nineveh was at one point the largest city in the world. It was one of many capitals used during the reign of the Assyrians, who created one of the first true empires in the world. Nineveh truly flourished in 700 BCE under Emperor Sennacherib. The city is situated on the outskirts of modern day Mosul.
Nimrud was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire, founded 3,200 years ago. The city displayed the empire’s power and wealth through ornate decoration and impressive structures. The site was excavated in the 1840s by British archaeologists, and many of its statues and artifacts were sent to museums abroad. However, as with most artifacts from above sites, the excavated treasures were sent to Iraqi museums – many of which have now been looted and destroyed by ISIS.
The Mosul museums and libraries have perhaps suffered the most significant losses at the hands of ISIS in the country. Centuries old manuscripts and thousands of books were stolen. Mosul University’s library was set on fire in December 2014, and in February the following year Mosul’s central public library was rigged with explosives and demolished, together with thousands of manuscripts and instruments used by Arab scientists. Around the same time, videos emerged of ISIS fighters rampaging through the Mosul Museum, smashing art and artifacts with hammers and ruining statues. For more sites and artifacts that have been destroyed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria consult this article.
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. Their only medal has come from weightlifting in the 1960 games, where Abdul Wahid Aziz won bronze. Iraq has never participated in the Winter Olympics.
LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON IRAQ
News about Iraq, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.
IRAQI NEWS OUTLETS
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
“The Kings: From Baghdad to Babylon”
This series, featured on the History Channel, traces history from ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) to modern times.
This website provides information on the Iraqi culture. Topics include history, urbanism, food, economy, social structure, gender roles, government, marriage, arts, medicine, and religion.