IRAQ, A REPUBLIC since the 1958 coup d'etat that ended the reign
of King Faisal II, became a sovereign, independent state in 1932.
Although the modern state, the Republic of Iraq, is quite young,
the history of the land and its people dates back more than 5,000
years. Indeed, Iraq contains the world's richest known archaeological
sites. Here, in ancient Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers),
the first civilization--that of Sumer-- appeared in the Near East.
Despite the millennium separating the two epochs, Iraqi history
displays a continuity shaped by adaptation to the ebbings and
flowings of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in Arabic, the Dijlis
and Furat, respectively). Allowed to flow unchecked, the rivers
wrought destruction in terrible floods that inundated whole towns.
When the rivers were controlled by irrigation dikes and other
waterworks, the land became extremely fertile.
The dual nature of the Tigris and the Euphrates--their potential
to be destructive or productive--has resulted in two distinct
legacies found throughout Iraqi history. On the one hand, Mesopotamia's
plentiful water resources and lush river valleys allowed for the
production of surplus food that served as the basis for the civilizing
trend begun at Sumer and preserved by rulers such as Hammurabi
(1792-1750 B.C.), Cyrus (550-530 B.C.), Darius (520-485 B.C.),
Alexander (336-323 B.C.), and the Abbasids (750-1258). The ancient
cities of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria all were located in what
is now Iraq. Surplus food production and joint irrigation and
flood control efforts facilitated the growth of a powerful and
Mesopotamia could also be an extremely threatening environment,
however, driving its peoples to seek security from the vicissitudes
of nature. Throughout Iraqi history, various groups have formed
autonomous, self-contained social units. Allegiance to ancient
religious deities at Ur and Eridu, membership in the Shiat Ali
(or party of Ali, the small group of followers that supported
Ali ibn Abu Talib as rightful leader of the Islamic community
in the seventh century), residence in the asnaf (guilds)
or the mahallat (city quarters) of Baghdad under the
Ottoman Turks, membership in one of a multitude of tribes--such
efforts to build autonomous security-providing structures have
exerted a powerful centrifugal force on Iraqi culture.
Two other factors that have inhibited political centralization
are the absence of stone and Iraq's geographic location as the
eastern flank of the Arab world. For much of Iraqi history, the
lack of stone has severely hindered the building of roads. As
a result, many parts of the country have remained beyond government
control. Also, because it borders nonArab Turkey and Iran and
because of the great agricultural potential of its river valley,
Iraq has attracted waves of ethnically diverse migrations. Although
this influx of people has enriched Iraqi culture, it also has
disrupted the country's internal balance and has led to deep-seated
Throughout Iraqi history, the conflict between political fragmentation
and centralization has been reflected in the struggles among tribes
and cities for the food-producing flatlands of the river valleys.
When a central power neglected to keep the waterworks in repair,
land fell into disuse, and tribes attacked settled peoples for
precious and scarce agricultural commodities. For nearly 600 years,
between the collapse of the Abbasid Empire in the thirteenth century
and the waning years of the Ottoman era in the late nineteenth
century, government authority was tenuous and tribal Iraq was,
in effect, autonomous. At the beginning of the twentieth century,
Iraq's disconnected, and often antagonistic, ethnic, religious,
and tribal social groups professed little or no allegiance to
the central government. As a result, the all-consuming concern
of contemporary Iraqi history has been the forging of a nation-state
out of this diverse and conflict-ridden social structure and the
concomitant transformation of parochial loyalties, both tribal
and ethnic, into a national identity.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the tanzimat
reforms (an administrative and legal reorganization of the Ottoman
Empire), the emergence of private property, and the tying of Iraq
to the world capitalist market severely altered Iraq's social
structure. Tribal shaykhs (see Glossary) traditionally had provided
both spiritual leadership and tribal security. Land reform and
increasing links with the West transformed many shaykhs into profit-seeking
landlords, whose tribesmen became impoverished sharecroppers.
Moreover, as Western economic penetration increased, the products
of Iraq's once-prosperous craftsmen were displaced by machine-made
During the twentieth century, as the power of tribal Iraq waned,
Baghdad benefited from the rise of a centralized governmental
apparatus, a burgeoning bureaucracy, increased educational opportunities,
and the growth of the oil industry. The transformation of the
urban-tribal balance resulted in a massive rural-to-urban migration.
The disruption of existing parochial loyalties and the rise of
new class relations based on economics fueled frequent tribal
rebellions and urban uprisings during much of the twentieth century.
Iraq's social fabric was in the throes of a destabilizing transition
in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time,
because of its foreign roots, the Iraqi political system suffered
from a severe legitimacy crisis. Beginning with its League of
Nations Mandate in 1920, the British government had laid out the
institutional framework for Iraqi government and politics. Britain
imposed a Hashimite (also seen as Hashemite) monarchy, defined
the territorial limits of Iraq with little correspondence to natural
frontiers or traditional tribal and ethnic settlements, and influenced
the writing of a constitution and the structure of parliament.
The British also supported narrowly based groups--such as the
tribal shaykhs--over the growing, urban-based nationalist movement,
and resorted to military force when British interests were threatened,
as in the 1941 Rashid Ali coup.
Between 1918 and 1958, British policy in Iraq had farreaching
effects. The majority of Iraqis were divorced from the political
process, and the process itself failed to develop procedures for
resolving internal conflicts other than rule by decree and the
frequent use of repressive measures. Also, because the formative
experiences of Iraq's post-1958 political leadership centered
around clandestine opposition activity, decision making and government
activity in general have been veiled in secrecy. Furthermore,
because the country lacks deeply rooted national political institutions,
political power frequently has been monopolized by a small elite,
the members of which are often bound by close family or tribal
Between the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 and the emergence
of Saddam Husayn in the mid-1970s, Iraqi history was a chronicle
of conspiracies, coups, countercoups, and fierce Kurdish uprisings.
Beginning in 1975, however, with the signing of the Algiers Agreement--an
agreement between Saddam Husayn and the shah of Iran that effectively
ended Iranian military support for the Kurds in Iraq--Saddam Husayn
was able to bring Iraq an unprecedented period of stability. He
effectively used rising oil revenues to fund large-scale development
projects, to increase public sector employment, and significantly
to improve education and health care. This tied increasing numbers
of Iraqis to the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party.
As a result, for the first time in contemporary Iraqi history,
an Iraqi leader successfully forged a national identity out of
Iraq's diverse social structure. Saddam Husayn's achievements
and Iraq's general prosperity, however, did not survive long.
In September 1980, Iraqi troops crossed the border into Iran,
embroiling the country in a costly war .
Data as of May 1988