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.
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.