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Iraq | Facts and History

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Iraq is watered by two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates - hence the ancient name, Mesopotamia.

Boys jump into the Tigris River at Baghdad, Iraq.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images
The sun sets in Baghdad, Iraq

Night falls over Baghdad

Brian Hillegas on Flickr.com
This amazing mosque dates to 862 CE, built in Samarra, Iraq by Caliph al-Mutawakkil

The famous Spiral Minaret or Al-Malweyya in Samarra, Iraq

Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

The modern nation of Iraq is built upon foundations that go back to some of humanity's earliest complex cultures. It was in Iraq, also known as Mesopotamia, that Babylonian king Hammurabi regularized the law in the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1772 BCE.

Under Hammurabi's system, society would inflict upon a criminal the same harm that the criminal had inflicted upon his victim. This is codified in the famous dictum, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." More recent Iraqi history, however, tends to support the Mahatma Gandhi's take on this rule. He is supposed to have said that "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Baghdad, population 9,500,000 (2008 estimate)

Major cities: Mosul, 3,000,000

Basra, 2,300,000

Arbil, 1,294,000

Kirkuk, 1,200,000

Government of Iraq:

The Republic of Iraq is a parliamentary democracy. The head of state is the president, currently Jalal Talabani, while the head of government is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The unicameral parliament is called the Council of Representatives; its 325 members serve four-year terms. Eight of those seats are specifically reserved for ethnic or religious minorities.

Iraq's judiciary system consists of the Higher Judicial Council, the Federal Supreme Court, the Federal Court of Cassation, and lower courts. ("Cassation" literally means "to quash" - it is another term for appeals, evidently taken from the French legal system.)

Population:

Iraq has a total population of about 30.4 million. The population growth rate is an estimated 2.4%. About 66% of Iraqis live in urban areas.

Some 75-80% of Iraqis are Arabs. Another 15-20% are Kurds, by far the largest ethnic minority; they live primarily in northern Iraq. The remaining roughly 5% of the population is made up of Turkomen, Assyrians, Armenians, Chaldeans and other ethnic groups.

Languages:

Both Arabic and Kurdish are official languages of Iraq. Kurdish is an Indo-European language related to Iranian languages.

Minority languages in Iraq include Turkoman, which is a Turkic language; Assyrian, a Neo-Aramaic language of the Semitic language family; and Armenian, an Indo-European language with possible Greek roots. Thus, although the total number of languages spoken in Iraq is not high, the linguistic variety is great.

Religion:

Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, with an estimated 97% of the population following Islam. Perhaps unfortunately, it is also among the most even divided countries on Earth in terms of Sunni and Shi'a populations; 60 to 65% of Iraqis are Shi'a, while 32 to 37% are Sunni.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni minority controlled the government, often persecuting Shi'as. Since the new constitution was implemented in 2005, Iraq is supposed to be a democratic country, but the Shi'a/Sunni split is a source of much tension as the nation sorts out a new form of government.

Iraq also has a small Christian community, around 3% of the population. During the nearly decade-long war following the US-led invasion in 2003, many Christians fled Iraq for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or western countries.

Geography:

Iraq is a desert country, but it is watered by two major rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates. Only 12% of Iraq's land is arable. It controls a 58 km (36 mile) coast on the Persian Gulf, where the two rivers empty into the Indian Ocean.

Iraq is bordered by Iran to the east, Turkey and Syria to the north, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the west, and Kuwait to the southeast. Its highest point is Cheekah Dar, a mountain in the north of the country, at 3,611 m (11,847 feet). Its lowest point is sea level.

Climate:

As a subtropical desert, Iraq experiences extreme seasonal variation in temperature. In parts of the country, July and August temperatures average over 48°C (118°F). During the rainy winter months of December through March, however, temperatures drop below freezing not infrequently. Some years, heavy mountain snow in the north produces dangerous flooding on the rivers.

The lowest temperature recorded in Iraq was -14°C (7°F). The highest temperature was 54°C (129°F).

Another key feature of Iraq's climate is the sharqi, a southerly wind that blows from April through early June, and again in October and November. It gusts up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph), causing sand storms that can be seen from space.

Economy:

The economy of Iraq is all about oil; "black gold" provides more than 90% of government revenue, and accounts for 80% of the country's foreign exchange income. As of 2011, Iraq was producing 1.9 million barrels per day of oil, while consuming 700,000 barrels per day domestically. (Even as it exports almost 2 million barrels per day, Iraq also imports 230,000 barrels per day.)

Since the start of the US-led War in Iraq in 2003, foreign aid has become a major component of Iraq's economy, as well. The US has pumped some $58 billion dollars worth of aid into the country between 2003 and 2011; other nations have pledge an additional $33 billion in reconstruction aid.

Iraq's workforce is employed primarily in the service sector, although about 15 to 22% work in agriculture. The unemployment rate is around 15%, and an estimated 25% of Iraqis live below the poverty line.

The Iraqi currency is the dinar. As of February 2012, $1 US is equal to 1,163 dinar.

History of Iraq:

Part of the Fertile Crescent, Iraq was one of the early sites of complex human civilization and agricultural practice. Once called Mesopotamia, Iraq was the seat of the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures c. 4,000 - 500 BCE. During this early period, Mesopotamians invented or refined technologies such as writing and irrigation; the famous King Hammurabi (r. 1792- 1750 BCE) recorded the law in the Code of Hammurabi, and over a thousand of years later, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605 - 562 BCE) built the incredible Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

After about 500 BCE, Iraq was ruled by a succession of Persian dynasties, such as the Achaemenids, the Parthians, the Sassanids and the Seleucids. Although local governments existed in Iraq, they were under Iranian control until the 600s CE.

In 633, the year after the Prophet Muhammad died, a Muslim army under Khalid ibn Walid invaded Iraq. By 651, the soldiers of Islam had brought down the Sassanid Empire in Persia, and began to Islamicize the region that is now Iraq and Iran.

Between 661 and 750, Iraq was a dominion of the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled from Damascus (now in Syria). The Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled the Middle East and North Africa from 750 to 1258, decided to build a new capital closer to the political power hub of Persia. It built the city of Baghdad, which became a center of Islamic art and learning.

In 1258, catastrophe struck the Abbasids and Iraq in the form the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. The Mongols demanded that Baghdad surrender, but the Caliph Al-Mustasim refused. Hulagu's troops laid siege to Baghdad, taking the city with at least 200,000 Iraqi dead. The Mongols also burned the Grand Library of Baghdad and its wonderful collection of documents - one of the great crimes of history. The caliph himself was executed by being rolled in a carpet and trampled by horses; this was an honorable death in Mongol culture, because none of the caliph's noble blood touched the ground.

Hulagu's army would meet defeat by the Egyptian Mamluk slave-army in the Battle of Ayn Jalut. In the Mongols' wake, however, the Black Death carried away about a third of Iraq's population. In 1401, Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) captured Baghdad, and ordered another massacre of its people.

Timur's fierce army only controlled Iraq for a few years, and was supplanted by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire would rule Iraq from the fifteenth century through 1917, when Britain wrested the Middle East from Turkish control and the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Under the British/French plan to divide the Middle East, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, Iraq became part of the British Mandate. On November 11, 1920, the region became a British mandate under the League of Nations, called the "State of Iraq." Britain brought in a (Sunni) Hashemite king from the region of Mecca and Medina, now in Saudi Arabia, to rule over the primarily Shi'a Iraqis and Kurds of Iraq, sparking widespread discontent and rebellion.

In 1932, Iraq gained nominal independence from Britain, although the British-appointed King Faisal still ruled the country and the British military had special rights in Iraq. The Hashemites ruled until 1958, when King Faisal II was assassinated in a coup led by Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim. This signaled the beginning of a rule by a series of strongmen over Iraq, which lasted through 2003.

Qasim's rule survived for just five years, before being overthrown in turn by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif in February of 1963. Three years later, Arif's brother took power after the colonel died; however, he would rule Iraq for just two years before being deposed by a Ba'ath Party-led coup in 1968. The Ba'athist government was led by Ahmed Hasan Al-Bakir at first, but he was slowly elbowed aside over the next decade by Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein formally seized power as president of Iraq in 1979. The following year, feeling threatened by rhetoric from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, new leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran that led to the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War.

Hussein himself was a secularist, but the Ba'ath Party was dominated by Sunnis. Khomeini hoped that Iraq's Shi'ite majority would rise up against Hussein in an Iranian Revolution-style movement, but that did not happen. With support from the Gulf Arab states and the United States, Saddam Hussein was able to fight the Iranians to a stalemate. He also took the opportunity to use chemical weapons against tens of thousands of Kurdish and Marsh Arab civilians within his own country, as well as against the Iranian troops, in blatant violation of international treaty norms and standards.

Its economy ravaged by the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq decided to invade the small but wealthy neighboring nation of Kuwait in 1990. Saddam Hussein announced that he had annexed Kuwait; when he refused to withdraw, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to take military action in 1991 in order to oust the Iraqis. An international coalition led by the United States (which had been allied with Iraq just three years earlier) routed the Iraqi Army in a matter of months, but Saddam Hussein's troops set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells on their way out, causing an ecological disaster along the Persian Gulf coast. This fighting would come to be known as the First Gulf War.

Following the First Gulf War, the United States patrolled a no-fly zone over the Kurdish north of Iraq to protect civilians there from Saddam Hussein's government; Iraqi Kurdistan began to function as a separate country, even while nominally still part of Iraq. Throughout the 1990s, the international community was concerned that Saddam Hussein's government was trying to develop nuclear weapons. In 1993, the US also learned that Hussein had made a plan to assassinate President George H. W. Bush during the First Gulf War. The Iraqis allowed UN weapons inspectors in to the country, but expelled them in 1998, claiming that they were CIA spies. In October of that year, US President Bill Clinton called for "regime change" in Iraq.

After George W. Bush became president of the United States in 2000, his administration began to prepare for a war against Iraq. Bush the younger resented Saddam Hussein's plans to kill Bush the elder, and made the case that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons despite rather flimsy evidence. The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC gave Bush the political cover he needed to launch a Second Gulf War, even though Saddam Hussein's government had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003, when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq from Kuwait. The coalition drove the Ba'athist regime out of power, installing an Iraqi Interim Government in June of 2004, and organizing free elections for October of 2005. Saddam Hussein went in to hiding, but was captured by US troops on December 13, 2003. In the chaos, sectarian violence broke out across the country between the Shi'a majority and the Sunni minority; al-Qaeda seized the opportunity to establish a presence in Iraq.

Iraq's interim government tried Saddam Hussein for the killing of Iraqi Shi'ites in 1982, and sentenced him to death. Saddam Hussein was hanged on December 30, 2006. After a "surge" of troops to quell violence in 2007-2008, the US withdrew from Baghdad in June of 2009, and left Iraq completely in December of 2011.

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