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IN THE LATE 1980s, Iraq became a central actor in Middle Eastern affairs and a force to reckon with in the wider international community. Iraq's growing role resulted from the way in which it was adapting the principles of Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party socialism to meet the country's needs and from its somewhat unexpected success in compelling Iran in August 1988 to request a cease-fire in the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq War.

Iraq's reassertion in the 1980s of its role in the region and in the world community evoked its ancient history. At one time Mesopotamia ("the land between the rivers"), which encompassed much of present-day Iraq, formed the center not only of the Middle East but also of the civilized world. The people of the Tigris and Euphrates basin, the ancient Sumerians, using the fertile land and the abundant water supply of the area, developed sophisticated irrigation systems and created what was probably the first cereal agriculture as well as the earliest writing, cuneiform. Their successors, the Akkadians, devised the most complete legal system of the period, the Code of Hammurabi. Located at a crossroads in the heart of the ancient Middle East, Mesopotamia was a plum sought by numerous foreign conquerors. Among them were the warlike Assyrians, from the tenth century through the seventh century B.C., and the Chaldeans, who in the sixth century B.C. created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In 539 B.C., Semitic rule of the area ended with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. The successors of Cyrus paid little attention to Mesopotamia, with the result that the infrastructure was allowed to fall into disrepair. Not until the Arab conquest and the coming of Islam did Mesopotamia begin to regain its glory, particularly when Baghdad was the seat of the Abbasid caliphate between 750 and 1258.

Iraq experienced various other foreign rulers, including the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, and the British under a mandate established after World War I. The British placed Faisal, a Hashimite claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad, on the throne in 1921. Popular discontent with the monarchy, which was regarded as a Western imposition, led in 1958 to a military revolution that overthrew the king.

Ultimately, the military regime installed a government ruled by the Baath's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and created the Provisional Constitution of July 16, 1970, that institutionalized the RCC's role. Within the Baath, power lay primarily in the hands of Baathists from the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Husayn, who played an increasingly prominent role in the government in the 1970s. (Tikrit was also the hometown of his predecessor, Ahmad Hasan al Bakr, who formally resigned the leadership in 1979).

The Baathist government in 1970 granted the Kurdish minority a degree of autonomy, but not the complete self-rule the Kurds desired, in the predominantly Kurdish regions of Dahuk, Irbil, and As Sulaymaniyah . In the early 1970s, Iraqi casualties from the renewed warfare with the Kurds were such as to induce Saddam Husayn to sign an agreement with the shah of Iran in Algiers in March 1975 recognizing the thalweg, or the midpoint of the Shatt al Arab, as the boundary between the two countries. The agreement ended the shah's aid to the Kurds, thus eventually quelling the rebellion.

Saddam Husayn then turned his attention to domestic matters, particularly to the economy and to an industrial modernization program. He had notable success in distributing land, in improving the standard of living, and in increasing health and educational opportunities. Rural society was transformed as a result of large rural-to-urban migration and the decline of rural handicraft industries. Urban society witnessed the rise, particularly in the late 1970s and the 1980s, of a class of Baathist technocrats. In addition, the Shia (see Glossary) Muslims, who, although they constituted a majority, had been largely unrepresented in significant areas of Iraqi society, in which the minority Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims were the governing element, were integrated to a considerable degree into the government, into business, and into the professions.

Buoyed by domestic success, Saddam Husayn shifted his concentration to foreign affairs. Beginning in the late 1970s, Iraq sought to assume a more prominent regional role and to replace Egypt, which had been discredited from its position of Arab leadership because of signing the Camp David Accords in 1978. Iraq, therefore, gradually modified its somewhat hostile stance toward Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, seeking to win their support. Relations with the Soviet Union, Iraq's major source of weapons, cooled, however, following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that began in December 1979. In contrast, Iraqi ties with France improved considerably, and France became Iraq's second most important arms supplier.

The overthrow of the monarchy in Iran and the coming to power in 1979 of Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini--whom Saddam Husayn had expelled from Iraq in 1978, reportedly at the shah's request--revived the historic hostility between the two countries. Saddam Husayn feared the impact on Iraqi Shias of Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism and resented Iran's attempted hegemony in the Persian Gulf region. Believing Iran's military forces to be unprepared as a result of the revolutionary purges, in September 1980, following a number of border skirmishes, Iraq invaded Iranian territory. Thus began a bitter, costly, eight- year-long war in which the strength and the revolutionary zeal of Iran were clearly demonstrated.

From late 1980 to 1988, the war took precedence over other matters. The Baath high command succeeded in controlling Iraq's military institution to a degree that surprised foreign observers. One of the major instruments for accomplishing this control was the People's Army, which served as the Baath Party's militia.

The Baath could do little, however, to counter Iran's superiority in manpower and materiel. At times when Iraq considered its situation particularly desperate--for example, when Iranian forces appeared to be gaining control of substantial areas of Iraqi territory, such as Al Faw Peninsula in the south and the northern mountainous Kurdish area--Iraq unleashed a barrage of missiles against Iranian cities. Further, reliable reports indicated that Iraq used chemical warfare against the enemy, possibly in the hope of bringing Iran to the negotiating table.

To prevent domestic unrest as a result of the war, Saddam Husayn adopted a "guns and butter" economic policy, bringing in foreign laborers to replace those called to military service and striving to keep casualties low. After drawing down its own reserves, Iraq needed the financial support of its Gulf neighbors. Of the latter, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all provided Iraq with loans to help it prosecute the war. Relations with Egypt also improved significantly after the war's outbreak. Meanwhile Iraqi hostility toward Syria, its fellow Baathist government but traditional rival, increased as a result of Syria's strong support of Iran.

As part of his wartime economic policies, Saddam Husayn in 1987 returned agricultural collectives to the private sector, and in 1988 he took measures to privatize more than forty state-run factories because of the inefficiency and unprofitability of agriculture and industry when under state control. These privatizing steps reflected a desire for greater economic efficiency rather than a change in economic ideology. Government controls on the economy were decreased by cutting subsidies, by allowing partial foreign ownership, and by reducing bureaucratic regulation of enterprises, thus reducing labor costs.

Despite the introduction of more liberal economic policies in Iraq in the late 1980s, few indications suggested that the political system was becoming less rigid to any significant degree. Ultimate decisions in both the economic and the political realms apparently remained in the hands of Saddam Husayn rather than in those of the constitutionally designated RCC. According to a statement by Saddam Husayn to the Permanent Bureau of the Arab Jurists' Federation in Baghdad in November 1988, the Baath two years previously had approved steps toward democratization, but these had been delayed by the Iran-Iraq War. The measures included having a minimum of two candidates for each elective post, allowing non-Baathists to run for political office, and permitting the establishment of other political parties. In January 1989, following an RCC meeting chaired by Saddam Husayn, the formation of a special committee to draft a new constitution was reported; according to unconfirmed reports in November, the new constitution will abolish the RCC. Elections for the National Assembly were also announced, and this body was authorized to investigate government ministries and departments. The elections took place in early April and featured almost 1,000 candidates (among them 62 women, although none was elected) for the 250 seats; only 160 Baath Party members were elected. A number of Baathist candidates also were defeated in the September Kurdish regional assembly elections. The results of both elections indicated a gradual downgrading of the prominence of the Baath. The RCC, moreover, directed the minister of information to permit the public to voice complaints about government programs in the government-controlled press; and government officials were ordered to reply to such complaints. The role of Saddam Husayn's family in government affairs was somewhat muted as well. Following the helicopter crash in a sandstorm on May 5 that killed Saddam Husayn's brother-in-law and cousin, Minister of Defense Adnan Khayr Allah Talfah, a technocrat who did not come from Tikrit, replaced Talfah.

The internal security apparatus controlled by the Baath Party continued to keep a particularly close check on potential dissidents: these included Kurds, communists, and members of Shia revival movements. These movements, such as Ad Dawah al Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), commonly referred to as Ad Dawah, sought to propagate fundamentalist Islamic principles and were out of sympathy with Baath socialism. Furthermore, in 1988 in the final stages of the war, both before and after the cease-fire, Iraq was thought to have engaged in chemical warfare against the Kurds. Conceivably the regime saw an opportunity to instill such fear in the Kurds, a significant percentage of whom had cooperated with Iran during the war, that their dissidence would be discouraged. In the spring of 1989 the government announced it would depopulate a border strip thirty kilometers wide along the frontier with Turkey and Iran on the northeast, moving all inhabitants, mainly Kurds, from the area; it began this process in May.

In December 1988, reports surfaced of dissidence within the army, in which Saddam Husayn lacked a power base. The projected annual Army Day celebrations on January 6, 1989, were cancelled and allegedly a number of senior army officers and some civilian Baathists were executed. In February the regime announced that all units of the People's Army would be withdrawn from the front by late March; in July a further announcement disbanded the three-division strong 1st Special Army Corps, formed in June 1986, but apparently some time would elapse before soldiers actually returned to civilian status. Such measures were probably occasioned by the continued success of the cease-fire, initiated in August 1988. The cease-fire held, although a number of border incidents occurred, of which the most serious was the Iranian flooding of a sixty-four-kilometer frontier area northeast of Basra. Informed observers considered the flooding designed to put pressure on Iraq to return a strip of approximately 1,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory on the steppe beyond Baqubah. On October 27, Iran stopped flooding the area, probably as a prelude to a new United Nations (UN) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mediation effort.

The peace talks under UN sponsorship, despite a score of face-to-face meetings, had made little progress as of mid- December. A few exchanges of prisoners of war (POWs), largely of those that were ill or wounded, had taken place, but both Iraq and Iran still held large numbers of each other's prisoners. Saddam Husayn, who had agreed on October 5, 1988, to the ICRC plan for prisoner repatriation, in March 1989 proposed in a letter to UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar that the UN guarantee the return of the freed POWs to civilian life. Saddam Husayn made his proposal in the hope that this guarantee would reassure Iran, which held approximately 70,000 Iraqi POWs-- whereas Iraq held about half that number of Iranians--that the balance of power would not be disturbed. Iran has refused to exchange prisoners or to implement any of the ten points of UN Security Council Resolution 598 dealing with the dispute until Iraq returns all Iranian territory.

A major source of disagreement in the peace negotiations was Iraq's insistence on sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab, as opposed to the divided ownership created under the 1975 Algiers Agreement. Failing such a settlement, Iraq threatened to divert the waters of the Shatt al Arab above Basra so that it would rejoin the Gulf at Umm Qasr, a port that Iraq had announced it would deepen and widen. Iraq was eager to have Iran allow the UN to begin clearing sunken ships from the Shatt al Arab so as to permit Iraqi access to the sea.

Iraq, meanwhile, had launched a diplomatic campaign to improve its relations with other countries of the region, particularly with Jordan and Egypt. In the last half of 1988, beginning even before he accepted the cease-fire, Saddam Husayn met five times with King Hussein and three times with Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. These high-level meetings included symbolic elements, such as Saddam Husayn's accompanying Hussein on a visit in Baghdad to the graves of Faisal and Ghazi, the Hashimite kings of Iraq, an indication of a considerably more moderate Iraqi Baathist attitude toward monarchy than had been evident in the past. The meetings were designed to bolster political and economic support for Iraq (in December 1988 Iraq concluded a US$800 million trade agreement with Jordan for 1989), as well as to coordinate Arab policy toward the Palestine Liberation Organization and toward Israel, a revision of Iraq's previous rejection of any Arab-Israeli settlement. In addition, Saddam Husayn sought to reassure Saudi Arabia, from which Iraq had received substantial financial support during the Iran-Iraq War, that Iraq had no intention of dominating or of overthrowing the Persian Gulf monarchies.

In its relations with the Western world, Iraq also exhibited greater moderation than it had in the 1970s or early 1980s. For example, the United States Department of State indicated in late March 1989 that Iraq had agreed to pay US$27.3 million compensation to relatives of the thirty-seven American naval personnel killed in the 1987 Iraqi attack on the USS Stark. During the war with Iran, Iraq had borrowed extensively from France, Britain, Italy, and to a lesser extent from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and Japan. These countries would doubtless play significant roles in Iraq's reconstruction and rearmament; in view of their commercial interest, Iraq has succeeded in having its loan repayments rescheduled. For example, Iraq signed an agreement with France in September 1989 allowing it to repay its indebtedness, due in 1989, over a six- to nine-year period, and completing arrangements for Iraq's purchase of fifty Mirage 2000s.

Since the cease-fire in August 1988, Iraq has undertaken an extensive rearmament program involving foreign arms purchases and the intensified development of its domestic arms industry to generate export income as well as to meet domestic needs. The First Baghdad International Exhibition for Military Production took place from April 28 to May 2, 1989, featuring numerous types of Iraqi arms. Among weapons Iraq produced in 1989 were a T-74 tank, called the Lion of Baghdad, and an Iraqi version of the airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, developed from the Soviet Ilyushin Il-76. Iraq named the plane the Adnan-1 after late Minister of Defense Adnan Khayr Allah Talfah. A military development that aroused considerable concern in Israel was Iraq's launching from its Al Anbar space research center in early December of a forty-eight ton, three-stage rocket capable of putting a satellite into space orbit. The minister of industry and military industrialization also announced that Iraq had developed two 2,000-kilometer range surface-to-surface missiles.

Apart from the need to replace lost armaments, the war imposed a heavy reconstruction burden on Iraq. To rebuild the infrastructure and to prevent disaffection among the population of the south who had suffered particularly, the government gave a high priority to the rebuilding of Basra. On June 25, Iraq published the completion of the basic reconstruction of Basra at a cost of approximately US$6 billion, stating that work was then beginning on rebuilding Al Faw, which prior to wartime evacuation had about 50,000 inhabitants. The government has also announced programs to create heavy industry, such as new iron and steel and aluminum works, to build another petrochemical complex, to upgrade fertilizer plants, and to reconstruct the offshore oil export terminals at Khor al Amaya and Mina al Bakr. In June 1989 Iraq reported its readiness to accommodate very large crude oil carriers at a new terminal at Mina al Bakr.

Iraq has taken other economic measures to stimulate oil production and to control inflation. Since the cease-fire, Iraq has pumped nearly its full OPEC quota of 2.8 billion barrels of oil per day. In September 1989, Iraq completed its second crude oil pipeline across Saudi Arabia, with a capacity of 1,650,000 barrels per day, terminating at the Red Sea just south of the Saudi port of Yanbu. These major economic ventures have led to inflation. To counter price rises, the regime has set weekly prices on fruit and vegetables and in late June instituted a price freeze for one year on state-produced goods and services. Concurrently it authorized an additional monthly salary of 25 Iraqi dinars (approximately $US80) for all civil servants and members of the police and military forces.

The negative economic consequences of the war extended beyond the reconstruction of cities and war-damaged infrastructure to include postponed development projects. For example, the massive rural-to-urban migration, particularly in southern Iraq, caused by the war had intensified a process begun before the war and had created an urgent need for housing, educational, and health facilities in urban areas. The war also had serious effects on Iraqi society, exacerbating the strained relations of Iraqi Arabs with the leading minority, the Kurds. The war, however, exerted a positive influence by promoting a greater sense of national unity, by diminishing differences between Shias and Sunnis, and by improving the role of women. The aftermath of the war permitted modification of traditional Baathist socialist doctrines so as to encourage greater privatization of the economy, although the degree to which the government would maintain its reduced interference in the economic sphere remained to be seen.

The end of the war left a number of unknown factors facing the Iraqi economy and society. One was the size of the postwar world petroleum demand and whether Iraq could sell its potential increased output on the international market. An important unanswered social question was whether women who had found employment during the war would return to domestic pursuits and help increase the birthrate as the government hoped. Although women might remain in the work force, presumably, work permits of most foreign workers brought in during the war would be terminated.

An immediate result of the war was an attempt by the government at political liberalization in allowing multiple candidates for elected posts and by offering an amnesty for political, but not for military, offenders. A test of this liberalization will be whether the reforms promised by the end of 1989--the new constitution, legalization of political parties other than the Baath, and freedom of the press-- occur. Measures taken as of mid-December reflected only minimal lessening of the personal control of President Saddam Husayn over the decision- making process in all spheres of the country's life.

The end of the war left many security issues unresolved. Although the regime had disbanded some armed forces units, would Iraq maintain a strong, well-trained army, posing a potential threat to its neighbors and to Israel? Also, what of the Iraqi POWs returning home after several years' indoctrination in POW camps in Iran--could the government of Saddam Husayn rely on their loyalty? Finally, Iraq faced the problem of its traditional Sunni-Shia dichotomy. The war had demonstrated the ability of Iraqi Shias to put nationalist commitment above sectarian differences, but the influence of fundamentalist Shia Islam in the area, represented by the Iranian regime, would continue to threaten that loyalty.

December 15, 1989
Helen Chapin Metz

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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