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From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, the course of Iraqi history was affected by the continuing conflicts between the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Ottoman Turks. The Safavids, who were the first to declare Shia Islam the official religion of Iran, sought to control Iraq both because of the Shia holy places at An Najaf and Karbala and because Baghdad, the seat of the old Abbasid Empire, had great symbolic value. The Ottomans, fearing that Shia Islam would spread to Anatolia (Asia Minor), sought to maintain Iraq as a Sunni-controlled buffer state. In 1509 the Safavids, led by Ismail Shah (1502-24), conquered Iraq, thereby initiating a series of protracted battles with the Ottomans. In 1514 Sultan Selim the Grim attacked Ismail's forces and in 1535 the Ottomans, led by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), conquered Baghdad from the Safavids. The Safavids reconquered Baghdad in 1623 under the leadership of Shah Abbas (1587-1629), but they were expelled in 1638 after a series of brilliant military maneuvers by the dynamic Ottoman sultan, Murad IV .

The major impact of the Safavid-Ottoman conflict on Iraqi history was the deepening of the Shia-Sunni rift. Both the Ottomans and the Safavids used Sunni and Shia Islam respectively to mobilize domestic support. Thus, Iraq's Sunni population suffered immeasurably during the brief Safavid reign (1623-38), while Iraq's Shias were excluded from power altogether during the longer period of Ottoman supremacy (1638-1916). During the Ottoman period, the Sunnis gained the administrative experience that would allow them to monopolize political power in the twentieth century. The Sunnis were able to take advantage of new economic and educational opportunities while the Shias, frozen out of the political process, remained politically impotent and economically depressed. The Shia-Sunni rift continued as an important element of Iraqi social structure in the 1980s (see Religious Life , ch. 2).

By the seventeenth century, the frequent conflicts with the Safavids had sapped the strength of the Ottoman Empire and had weakened its control over its provinces. In Iraq, tribal authority once again dominated; the history of nineteenth-century Iraq is a chronicle of tribal migrations and of conflict. The nomadic population swelled with the influx of beduins from Najd, in the Arabian Peninsula. Beduin raids on settled areas became impossible to curb. In the interior, the large and powerful Muntafiq tribal confederation took shape under the leadership of the Sunni Saadun family of Mecca. In the desert southwest, the Shammar--one of the biggest tribal confederations of the Arabian Peninsula--entered the Syrian desert and clashed with the Anayzah confederation. On the lower Tigris near Al Amarah, a new tribal confederation, the Bani Lam, took root. In the north, the Kurdish Baban Dynasty emerged and organized Kurdish resistance. The resistance made it impossible for the Ottomans to maintain even nominal suzerainty over Iraqi Kurdistan (land of the Kurds). Between 1625 and 1668, and from 1694 to 1701, local shaykhs ruled Al Basrah and the marshlands, home of the Madan (Marsh Arabs). The powerful shaykhs basically ignored the Ottoman governor of Baghdad.

The cycle of tribal warfare and of deteriorating urban life that began in the thirteenth century with the Mongol invasions was temporarily reversed with the reemergence of the Mamluks. In the early eighteenth century, the Mamluks began asserting authority apart from the Ottomans. Extending their rule first over Basra, the Mamluks eventually controlled the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys from the Persian Gulf to the foothills of Kurdistan. For the most part, the Mamluks were able administrators, and their rule was marked by political stability and by economic revival. The greatest of the Mamluk leaders, Suleyman the II (1780-1802), made great strides in imposing the rule of law. The last Mamluk leader, Daud (1816-31), initiated important modernization programs that included clearing canals, establishing industries, training a 20,000-man army, and starting a printing press.

The Mamluk period ended in 1831, when a severe flood and plague devastated Baghdad, enabling the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, to reassert Ottoman sovereignty over Iraq. Ottoman rule was unstable; Baghdad, for example, had more than ten governors between 1831 and 1869. In 1869, however, the Ottomans regained authority when the reform-minded Midhat Pasha was appointed governor of Baghdad. Midhat immediately set out to modernize Iraq on the Western model. The primary objectives of Midhat's reforms, called the tanzimat, were to reorganize the army, to create codes of criminal and commercial law, to secularize the school system, and to improve provincial administration. He created provincial representative assemblies to assist the governor, and he set up elected municipal councils in the major cities. Staffed largely by Iraqi notables with no strong ties to the masses, the new offices nonetheless helped a group of Iraqis gain administrative experience.

By establishing government agencies in the cities and by attempting to settle the tribes, Midhat altered the tribal-urban balance of power, which since the thirteenth century had been largely in favor of the tribes. The most important element of Midhat's plan to extend Ottoman authority into the countryside was the 1858 TAPU land law (named after the initials of the government office issuing it). The new land reform replaced the feudal system of land holdings and tax farms with legally sanctioned property rights. It was designed both to induce tribal shaykhs to settle and to give them a stake in the existing political order. In practice, the TAPU laws enabled the tribal shaykhs to become large landowners; tribesmen, fearing that the new law was an attempt to collect taxes more effectively or to impose conscription, registered community-owned tribal lands in their shaykhs' names or sold them outright to urban speculators. As a result, tribal shaykhs gradually were transformed into profit-seeking landlords while their tribesmen were relegated to the role of impoverished sharecroppers.

Midhat also attempted to replace Iraq's clerically run Islamic school system with a more secular educational system. The new, secular schools provided a channel of upward social mobility to children of all classes, and they led slowly to the growth of an Iraqi intelligentsia. They also introduced students for the first time to Western languages and disciplines.

The introduction of Western disciplines in the schools accompanied a greater Western political and economic presence in Iraq. The British had established a consulate at Baghdad in 1802, and a French consulate followed shortly thereafter. European interest in modernizing Iraq to facilitate Western commercial interests coincided with the Ottoman reforms. Steamboats appeared on the rivers in 1836, the telegraph was introduced in 1861, and the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, providing Iraq with greater access to European markets. The landowning tribal shaykhs began to export cash crops to the capitalist markets of the West.

In 1908 a new ruling clique, the Young Turks, took power in Istanbul. The Young Turks aimed at making the Ottoman Empire a unified nation-state based on Western models. They stressed secular politics and patriotism over the pan-Islamic ideology preached by Sultan Abd al Hamid. They reintroduced the 1876 constitution (this Ottoman constitution set forth the rights of the ruler and the ruled, but it derived from the ruler and has been called as at best an "attenuated autocracy,"), held elections throughout the empire, and reopened parliament. Although the Iraqi delegates represented only the well- established families of Baghdad, their parliamentary experience in Istanbul proved to be an important introduction to self- government.

Most important to the history of Iraq, the Young Turks aggressively pursued a "Turkification" policy that alienated the nascent Iraqi intelligentsia and set in motion a fledgling Arab nationalist movement. Encouraged by the Young Turks' Revolution of 1908, nationalists in Iraq stepped up their political activity. Iraqi nationalists met in Cairo with the Ottoman Decentralization Party, and some Iraqis joined the Young Arab Society, which moved to Beirut in 1913. Because of its greater exposure to Westerners who encouraged the nationalists, Basra became the center from which Iraqi nationalists began to demand a measure of autonomy. After nearly 400 years under Ottoman rule, Iraq was ill-prepared to form a nation-state. The Ottomans had failed to control Iraq's rebellious tribal domains, and even in the cities their authority was tenuous. The Ottomans' inability to provide security led to the growth of autonomous, self- contained communities. As a result, Iraq entered the twentieth century beset by a complex web of social conflicts that seriously impeded the process of building a modern state.

The oldest and most deeply ingrained conflict was the competition between the tribes and the cities for control over the food-producing flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The centralization policies of the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government), especially in the nineteenth century, constituted a direct threat to the nomadic structure and the fierce fighting spirit of the tribes. In addition to tribal-urban conflicts, the tribes fought among themselves, and there was a fairly rigid hierarchy between the most powerful tribes, the so-called "people of the camel," and the weaker tribes that included the "people of the sheep," marshdwellers, and peasants. The cities also were sharply divided, both according to occupation and along religious lines. The various guilds resided in distinct, autonomous areas, and Shia and Sunni Muslims rarely intermingled. The territory that eventually became the state of Iraq was beset, furthermore, by regional differences in orientation; Mosul in the north had historically looked to Syria and to Turkey, whereas Baghdad and the Shia holy cities had maintained close ties with Iran and with the people of the western and southwestern deserts.

Although Ottoman weakness had allowed Iraq's self-contained communities to grow stronger, the modernization initiated by the Sublime Porte tended to break down traditional autonomous groupings and to create a new social order. Beginning with the tanzimat reforms in 1869, Iraq's for the most part subsistence economy slowly was transformed into a market economy based on money and tied to the world capitalist market. Social status traditionally had been determined by noble lineage, by fighting prowess, and by knowledge of religion. With the advent of capitalism, social status increasingly was determined by property ownership and by the accumulation of wealth. Most disruptive in this regard was the TAPU land reform of 1858. Concomitantly, Western social and economic penetration increased; for example, Iraq's traditional crafts and craftsmen gradually were displaced by mass-produced British machine-made textiles.

The final Ottoman legacy in Iraq is related to the policies of the Young Turks and to the creation of a small but vocal Iraqi intelligentsia. Faced with the rapidly encroaching West, the Young Turks attempted to centralize the empire by imposing upon it the Turkish language and culture and by clamping down on newly won political freedoms. These Turkification policies alienated many of the Ottoman-trained intelligentsia who had originally aligned themselves with the Young Turks in the hope of obtaining greater Arab autonomy. Despite its relatively small size, the nascent Iraqi intelligentsia formed several secret nationalist societies. The most important of these societies was Al Ahd (the Covenant), whose membership was drawn almost entirely from Iraqi officers in the Ottoman army. Membership in Al Ahd spread rapidly in Baghdad and in Mosul, growing to 4,000 by the outbreak of World War I. Despite the existence of Al Ahd and of other, smaller, nationalist societies, Iraqi nationalism was still mainly the concern of educated Arabs from the upper and the middle classes.

Data as of May 1988



  • Introduction
  • History & Historical Setting

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    Country name
    conventional long form
    Republic of Iraq
    conventional short form
    local long form
    Al Jumhuriyah al Iraqiyah
    local short form
    Al Iraq

    Area -
    total: 437,072 sq km
    land: 432,162 sq km
    water: 4,910 sq km

    Geographic Location - Middle East, bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Kuwait

    Map references - Middle East

    Capital - Baghdad

    Border Countries - Iran 1,458 km, Jordan 181 km, Kuwait 242 km, Saudi Arabia 814 km, Syria 605 km, Turkey 331 km

    Major Cities - Baghdad

    Independence -
    3 October 1932 (from League of Nations mandate under British administration)

    National holiday - Revolution Day, 17 July (1968)

    Iraq 964

    Languages Spoken - Arabic (official) and Kurdish

    Weather Forecast -  Baghdad  Mosul  Saddam Irq-Afb / Civ  Shaibah / Basrah

    Major Airports - Baghdad

    Ports - Umm Qasr, Khawr az Zubayr, and Al Basrah have limited functionality

    Population -24,001,816 (July 2002 est.)

    Religion - Muslim 97% (Shi'a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), Christian or other 3%

    Nationality - Iraqi(s)

    Currency - Iraqi dinar

    Currency Code - IQD

    National Bird - "Kew" (Chukar)

    Lakes - Hammer

    Rivers - Euphrates, Tigris

    Terrain - Mostly broad plains; reedy marshes along Iranian border in south with large flooded areas; mountains along borders with Iran and Turkey

    Climate - Mostly desert; mild to cool winters with dry, hot, cloudless summers; northern mountainous regions along Iranian and Turkish borders experience cold winters with occasionally heavy snows that melt in early spring, sometimes causing extensive flooding in central and southern Iraq

    Geography - Strategic location on Shatt al Arab waterway and at the head of the Persian Gulf

    Waterways - 1,015 km
    note: Shatt al Arab is usually navigable by maritime traffic for about 130 km; channel has been dredged to 3 m and is in use; Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have navigable sections for shallow-draft boats; Shatt al Basrah canal was navigable by shallow-draft craft before closing in 1991 because of the Gulf war

    Natural hazards - Dust storms, sandstorms, floods

    Natural Resources - petroleum, natural gas, phosphates, sulphur

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    Information Courtesy: The Library of Congress - Country Studies

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