Though we’ve heard about Iraq on the news almost every night for the last ten years, when we sit back and think about the country, its people and life there apart from the War, what do we really know? Maybe after all this time we can locate Iraq on a world map, but before we embark on our tour, let’s take an extra moment to do something we may not have done since the early days of the War, or, maybe it’s something we haven’t done ever…. Let’s sit down and take a look at a map of Iraq. Let’s go with this one from PBS that indicates some of the nation’s religious and ethnic demographics…. (Maybe that’s something the British should have done before bringing in the Hashemite Monarchy in the ’20s….)
What this see is a country in four divisible sections:
— a distinctly Kurdish northeast with cities such as Mosul, Erbil and Kirkuk
— a mixed, though mainly Sunni center, featuring the capital of Baghdad
— a primarily Shia southeast, with cities like Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriya and Basra
— a sparsely populated no-man’s-land in the west
Do these ethnic, religious and linguistic (Arabic vs. Kurdish) differences matter? Often, yes. Or, at least, maybe they shouldn’t, but as we’ve learned from historical experience, they just well might.
If we look at this map of Iraq from Lonely Planet you’ll see the nation is in a pretty hopping neighborhood. We have Saudi Arabia to the southwest, Jordan to the West, Syria
to the northwest and a bit of Turkey to the North. Iran, a mainly Shia nation, forms our entire eastern border, with a tiny stretch of the southeast remaining for Kuwait. Each of Iraq’s neighbors has a stake in its continued well-being. Each also has troubles of its own.
Now that we have our bearings, let’s begin.
Iraq as nation formed thousands of years ago to essentially unite the owners of fertile farmland between two celebrated ancient rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates come together. This land–the Greeks called it “Mesopotamia,” which means “between two rivers”–is home to one of the world’s longest known continuous civilizations. For over 10,000 years people have lived and farmed this part of the Middle East, which those who
respect the region’s role in human history call not just “The Fertile Crescent,” but “The Cradle of Civilization.”
Ten thousand years of civilization is a whole lot of civilization. Even in the last five thousand
years, a lot of empires have had the chance to come and go. Among the most notable ancient empires to rule Iraq were:
— the Sumerians
(3500-1750 B.C.): the first known civilization to practice intensive, year-round agriculture, store food and work according to a division of labor. Sumer also developed one of the earliest systems of writing. (Did the Sumerians get their good ideas from aliens?)
— the Akkadians: (2350-2112 B.C.): a Semitic empire including the reign of Sargon the Great, one of the ancient world’s most legendary conquerors, a self-made man whose gardener father–so the legend goes–found him floating as an infant in basket on the river.
— the Babylonians (1792 BC to 563 B.C.):
Descendants of the Akkadians. During the their reign, which included both that of King Hammurabi, who is known for implementing a groundbreaking legal code, to Nebuchadnezzar II (605-563 BC), who is known both for his hanging gardens and for sending the Israelites into exile, Babylon, Iraq, was “the most famous ancient city in the whole world.”
— the Assyrians: (2400 BC to 612 BC):
Also descendants of the Akkadians, they were a Semitic people who were ethnically different from the Jews and Arabs. They also exiled the Jews from Jerusalem. Today Assyrians are primarily Christian.
— the Persians and the Greeks:
(539 BC to 637 AD): We focused on the Persians last week, we’ll focus on the Greeks when we visit Greece.
— the Arabs: (637-1258) We’ll focus on them when we explore Saudi Arabia.
— the Ottomans (1533-1918): During most of their rule Iraq was divided into three sections
because of ethnic and religious differences: Mosul Province, Baghdad Province and Basra Province.
The Ottomans ruled Iraq until they and the Central Powers lost World War I. The British occupied Iraq after the War and the League of Nations granted them formal control. Seeming to give very little thought to Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groups, the British imposed a Hashemite monarchy on the nation under King Faisal I in 1921. The Hashemites are an Arab ruling family whose members claim to be descended from Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife, Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Hashemites have long been important players in the Middle East. They ruled part of what is now Saudi Arabia before the Saud family took over, controlled Iraq (and briefly Syria), and still are the ruling family of Jordan. During the British occupation the Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north fought for independence but the Hashemites defeated them.
Iraq became independent when the British Mandate ended in 1932, but that didn’t stop the tumult. During World War II, pro-Nazi military officers took power in a coup, only to have the British quickly defeat them in the Anglo-Iraqi War. The British eventually used Iraq as a base for attacks against the Axis-supporting Syria and for its and the Soviets’ joint invasion of Iran. A military coup led by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif overthrew the Hashemite monarchy in 1958.
In 1961 Britain granted Kuwait its independence; Iraq immediately claimed sovereignty over it and threatened to invade but the British stood in the way. In 1963 Iraq put the Kuwaiti issue on the back burner when the Ba’ath party took over in a coup.
The Ba’aths had begun in the ’40s in Damascus, Syria, as a left-leaning, pan-Arab, Socialist Party, albeit one that was more in tune with independence movements in the Arab world than with Marxism. The Ba’aths in Syria split from those in Iraq, pursuing different shades of Socialist ideology, and have had a rivalry ever since. The primarily Sunni Ba’aths in Iraq became increasingly more statist, increasingly more racist (anti-Persian/anti Shia, specifically, but also anti-Kurd) and increasingly more ruthless in maintaining power. After losing control of Iraq briefly in the mid-’60s Ba’athist Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr took power and kept it until his resignation in July 1979. His successor…? His cousin and Ba’athist co-revolutionary, a mustachioed young general named Saddam Hussein.
Whatever anyone in Iraq may have had to say about Saddam–or, more likely, whatever they thought but in the atmosphere of fear and distrust the Ba’ath party created, were afraid to say–the new political and military commander of Iraq was not shy about making bold (and ultimately disastrous) decisions. Soon after taking power Saddam looked across the border to a revolutionarily chaotic Iran and decided he may have a chance to claim some disputed territory. In 1980 he ordered his troops to invade. For the next eight years Iran and Iraq fought a dismal war. At the end of the war many lives had been lost but no borders changed.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam received military support from the United States, which backed Iraq as a counterbalance against Iran. While receiving U.S. support Saddam not only decimated populations of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, some using all-important “weapons of mass destruction,” but held all Iraqis under increasingly strict control.
When the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 Saddam set his sights on regaining what he considered to be was a lost part of its Iraqi territory. In 1990 Saddam ordered his Army to cross the border with Kuwait to “reclaim” the land. Whether or not the United States had given him permission, international reaction was unfavorable. The United States corralled governments worldwide to support a counter-attack. Anti-war voices rose to support diplomacy and millions around the world protested, rallying around slogans that spoke to the Western powers’ exploitation of the Middle East for its oil. The U.S. and its coalition invaded anyway, and, in what came to be known as The Gulf War, essentially ran Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait in 100 hours. The Coalition decided not to pursue Saddam into Iraq.
After the Gulf War ended the Shia-dominated southern part rose up in a rebellion against Saddam. Kurds in the north did the same. Both have claimed they expected, but did not receive, active U.S. support. Saddam’s loyal Republican Guard was ruthless in its response. Nearly two million Iraqis fled their homes to avoid the fighting. After the rebellion Saddam forcibly relocated the “Marsh Arabs” and literally drained the Iraqi marshlands.
The Coalition’s response was to establish no-fly zones and impose economic sanctions which, whatever their intent, devastated the Iraqi people. (No direct links here because reports about the sanctions and their effects are very much for grown-ups. Do read about the sanctions, especially the “Oil For Food” program, as understanding them is important to appreciating the state of Iraq when the U.S. Coalition entered in 2003). Every so often throughout the ’90s military tensions between Saddam and the U.S. flared up. Very soon (some would say immediately) after the September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S.,
the United States leadership focused on removing Saddam from power. Though millions around the world yet again protested the impending invasion, in March of 2003 the U.S. led a “Coalition of the Willing” into Iraq, swiftly deposing Saddam. Saddam was tried, and eventually executed, on charges of committing war crimes.
All Around This World isn’t going to editorialize about whether or not the U.S. should have led an invasion of Iraq and we’re not even going to delve into the question of who knew what and when about weapons of mass destruction. There have been, are and will be debates on those points for a long while, and, fortunately or not, those values-based decisions are beyond the scope of even the most values-driven kiddie music class. What All Around This World knows is that life has been very difficult in Iraq since the War began; for many, somehow even more difficult than even the very difficult years preceding it. While active combat has since waned and while many American troops are scheduled to withdraw, Iraq is still a deeply unsettled place. Religious, ethnic and even economic rivalries, the flames of which Iraq’s ruling powers have stoked for centuries as a way to maintain their own power, continue to pose serious threats to the nation’s chance to find internal peace.
One would like to say the future is bright for Iraq and that the Iraqis who have struggled for so long finally will find some well-deserved calm. Maybe Iraq’s next stretch of ten thousand years will be somewhat less eventful than its first…?