The region of Iraq was historically known as Mesopotamia (Greek: “between the rivers”). It was home to the world’s first known civilization, the Sumerian culture, followed by the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures, whose influence extended into neighboring regions as early as 5000 BC. These civilizations produced some of the earliest writing and some of the first sciences, mathematics, laws and philosophies of the world; hence its common epithet, the “Cradle of Civilization”.
In the sixth century BC, Cyrus the Great conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and Mesopotamia was subsumed in the Achaemenid Persian Empire for nearly four centuries. Alexander the Great conquered the region again, putting it under Macedonian rule for nearly two centuries. A Central Asian tribe of ancient Iranian people’s known as the Parthia’s later annexed the region, followed by the Sassanid Persians. The region remained a province of the Persian Empire for nine centuries, until the 7th century.
Beginning in the seventh century AD, Islam spread to what is now Iraq during the Islamic conquest of Persia, led by the Muslim Arab commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Under the Rashidun Caliphate, the prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali moved his capital to Kufa “fi al-Iraq” when he became the fourth caliph. The Umayyad Caliphate ruled the province of Iraq from Damascus in the 7th century. (However, eventually there was a separate, independent Caliphate of Cordoba.)
The Abbasid Caliphate built the city of Baghdad in the 8th century as their capital, and it became the leading metropolis of the Arab and Muslim world for five centuries. Baghdad was the largest multicultural city of the Middle Ages, peaking at a population of more than a million, and was the center of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. The Mongols destroyed the city during the sack of Baghdad in the 13th century.
In 1257, Hulagu Khan amassed an unusually large army, a significant portion of the Mongol Empire’s forces, for the purpose of conquering Baghdad. When they arrived at the Islamic capital, Hulagu demanded surrender but the caliph refused. This angered Hulagu, and, consistent with Mongol strategy of discouraging resistance, Baghdad was decimated. Estimates of the number of dead range from 200,000 to a million.
The Mongols destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate and The Grand Library of Baghdad (Arabic بيت الحكمة Bayt al-Hikma, lit., House of Wisdom), which contained countless, precious, historical documents. The city would never regain its status as major center of culture and influence.
In 1401, warlord of Turco-Mongol descent Tamerlane (Timur Lenk) invaded Iraq. After the capture of Baghdad, 20,000 of its citizens were massacred. Timur ordered that every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him (many warriors were so scared they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Timur).
Later, the Ottoman Turks took Baghdad from the Persians in 1535. The Ottomans lost Baghdad to the Iranian Safavids in 1609, and took it back in 1632. From 1747 to 1831, Iraq was ruled, with short intermissions, by the Mamluk officers of Georgian origin who enjoyed local autonomy from the Sublime Porte. In 1831, the direct Ottoman rule was imposed and lasted until World War I, during which the Ottomans sided with Germany and the Central Powers.
During World War I the Ottomans were driven from much of the area by the United Kingdom during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The British lost 92,000 soldiers in the Mesopotamian campaign. Ottoman losses are unknown but the British captured a total of 45,000 prisoners of war. By the end of 1918 the British had deployed 410,000 men in the area, though only 112,000 were combat troops.
During World War I the British and French divided the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Treaty of Sèvres, which was ratified in the Treaty of Lausanne, led to the advent of the modern Middle East and Republic of Turkey. The League of Nations granted France mandates over Syria and Lebanon and granted the United Kingdom mandates over Iraq and Palestine (which then consisted of two autonomous regions: Palestine and Transjordan). Parts of the Ottoman Empire on the Arabian Peninsula became parts of what are today Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
British Mandate of Mesopotamia
At the end of World War I, the League of Nations granted the area to the United Kingdom as a mandate. It initially formed two former Ottoman vilayets (regions): Baghdad, and Basra into a single country in August 1921. Five years later, in 1926, the northern vilayet of Mosul was added, forming the territorial boundaries of the modern Iraqi state.
For three out of four centuries of Ottoman rule, Baghdad was the seat of administration for the vilayets of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. During the mandate, British colonial administrators ruled the country, and through the use of British armed forces, suppressed Arab and Kurdish rebellions against the occupation. They established the Hashemite king, Faisal, who had been forced out of Syria by the French, as their client ruler. Likewise, British authorities selected Sunni Arab elites from the region for appointments to government and ministry offices.[specify]
Britain granted independence to Iraq in 1932, on the urging of King Faisal, though the British retained military bases and transit rights for their forces. King Ghazi of Iraq ruled as a figurehead after King Faisal’s death in 1933, while undermined by attempted military coups, until his death in 1939. The United Kingdom invaded Iraq in 1941, for fear that the government of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani might cut oil supplies to Western nations, and because of his strong ideological leanings to Nazi Germany. A military occupation followed the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy, and the occupation ended on October 26, 1947. The rulers during the occupation and the remainder of the Hashemite monarchy were Nuri al-Said, the autocratic prime minister, who also ruled from 1930–1932, and ‘Abd al-Ilah, an adviser to the king Faisal II.
Republic of Iraq
The reinstated Hashemite monarchy lasted until 1958, when it was overthrown by a coup d’etat of the Iraqi Army, known as the 14 July Revolution. The coup brought Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qassim to power. He withdrew from the Baghdad Pact and established friendly relations with the Soviet Union, but his government lasted only until 1963, when it was overthrown by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif. Salam Arif died in 1966 and his brother, Abdul Rahman Arif, assumed the presidency. In 1968, Rahman Arif was overthrown by the Arab Socialist Bath Party. This movement gradually came under the control of Saddam Hussein ‘Abd al-Majid al Tikriti, who acceded to the presidency and control of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), then Iraq’s supreme executive body, in July 1979, while killing many of his opponents.
In 1979, Saddam Hussein took power as Iraqi President, after killing and arresting his leadership rivals. Shortly after taking power, the political situation in Iraq’s neighbor Iran changed drastically after the success of the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which resulted in a Shi’ite Muslim theocratic state being established. This was a dangerous change in the eyes of the Iraqi government, as Iraq had a Shi’ite majority, but was ruled by Hussein’s Sunni Muslim dominated regime. In 1980, Hussein claimed that Iranian forces were trying to topple his government and declared war on Iran. Saddam Hussein supported the Iranian Islamic socialist organization called the People’s Mujahedin of Iran which opposed the Iranian government. During the Iran-Iraq War Iraqi forces attacked Iranian soldiers and civilians with chemical weapons. Hussein’s regime was notorious for its human rights abuses; for instance, during the Al-Anfal campaign as well as attacks on Kurd civilians inside Iraq, such as the Halabja massacre, as punishment for elements of Kurdish support of Iran. The war ended in stalemate in 1988, largely due to American and Western support for Iraq. This was part of the US policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran.
In 1977, the Iraqi government ordered the construction of Osirak (also spelled Osiraq) at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, 18 km (11 miles) south-east of Baghdad. It was a 40 MW light-water nuclear materials testing reactor (MTR). In 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed the facility, in order to prevent the country from using the reactor for creation of nuclear weapons.
In 1990, faced with economic disaster following the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein looked to the oil-rich neighbor of Kuwait as a target to invade to use its resources and money to rebuild Iraq’s economy. The Iraqi government claimed that Kuwait was illegally slant drilling its oil pipelines into Iraqi territory which it demanded be stopped, Kuwait rejected the notion that it was slant drilling and Iraq followed this in August 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait. Upon successfully occupying Kuwait, Hussein declared that Kuwait had ceased to exist and it was to be part of Iraq, against heavy objections from many countries and the United Nations.
The UN agreed to pass sanctions against Iraq and demanded its immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq refused and the UN Security Council in 1991 unanimously voted for military action against Iraq. The United States, which had enormous vested interests in the oil supplies of the Middle East led an international coalition into Kuwait and Iraq. The coalition forces entered the war with more advanced weaponry than that of Iraq, though Iraq’s army was the largest armed force in the Middle East at the time. Despite a large arsenal of military forces, the Iraqi army stood no match to the advanced weaponry of the coalition forces and the air superiority which the U.S. Air Force provided. Iraq responded to the invasion by launching SCUD missile attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hussein hoped that by attacking Israel, the Israeli military would be drawn into the war, which he believed would rally anti-Israeli sentiment in neighboring Arab countries to support Iraq. However Hussein’s gamble failed as Israel reluctantly accepted U.S. demand for Israel to remain out of the conflict to avoid inflaming tensions. Iraqi armed forces were quickly destroyed and Hussein eventually accepted the inevitable and ordered a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but before they were to do so, he ordered them to sabotage Kuwait’s oil wells, which resulted in hundreds of wells being set ablaze causing an economic and ecological disaster in Kuwait.
The aftermath of the war saw the Iraqi military, especially its air force destroyed. In turn for peace, Iraq was forced to accept “no-fly zones”, the dismantlement of all chemical and biological weapons it possessed, and end any attempt to create or purchase nuclear weapons, to be insured by the allowance of UN weapons inspectors to evaluate the dismantlement of such weapons. And finally, Iraq would face sanctions if it disobeyed any of the demands. Shortly after the war ended in 1991, Shia Muslim Iraqis engaged in protests against Hussein’s regime, but Hussein responded with violent repression against Shia Muslims and the protests came to an end. After the war, Iraq on a number of occasions through the 1990s was accused of breaking its obligations including the discovery in 1993, of a plan to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush, in which sanctions were imposed and military action was taken by U.S. forces against Iraq.
Critics estimate that more than 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions. The U.S. and the UK declared no-fly zones over Kurdish northern and Shiite southern Iraq to oversee the Kurd’s and southern Shiites.[specify]
Invasion by American-led Coalition forces
20 March 2003, a United States-organized coalition invaded Iraq, with the stated reason that Iraq had failed to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons development program in violation of United Nations resolution 687. When Iraq invaded Kuwait during the first Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, adopted resolution 678, authorizing U.N. member states to use “all necessary means” to “restore international peace and security in the area.” After Iraq was expelled from Kuwait the United Nations passed a cease-fire resolution 687. The agreement included provisions obligating Iraq to discontinue its nuclear weapons program. The United States asserted that because Iraq was in “material breach” of resolution 687, the armed forces authorization of resolution 678 was revived.
The United States gave further justification for the invasion of Iraq in claims that Iraq had or was developing weapons of mass destruction and the opportunity to remove an oppressive dictator from power and bring democracy to Iraq. In his State of Union Address on 29 January, 2002, the American President George W. Bush declared that Iraq was a member of the “axis of evil”, and that, like North Korea and Iran, Iraq’s attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction gave credence to the claim that the Iraqi government posed a serious threat to America’s national security. He added, “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostilities toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade… This is a regime that agreed to international inspections—then kicked out inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world… By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes [Iran, Iraq and North Korea] pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.” However, no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been found since the invasion.
Following the invasion, the United States established the Coalition Provisional Authority to govern Iraq. Government authority was transferred to an Iraqi Interim Government in June 2004 and a permanent government was elected in October 2005. More than 140,000 Coalition troops remain in Iraq.
Studies have placed the number of civilians deaths as high as 655,000 (see The Lancet study), although most studies have put the number much lower; the Iraq Body Count project has a figure of less than 10% of The Lancet Study, though IBC organizers acknowledge that their statistics are an under-count as they base their information off of media-confirmed deaths. The website of the Iraq body count states, “Our maximum therefore refers to reported deaths – which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.”
After the invasion, al-Qaeda took advantage of the insurgency to entrench itself in the country concurrently with an Arab-Sunni led insurgency and sectarian violence.
On December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein was hanged. Hussein’s half-brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Hassan and former chief judge of the Revolutionary Court Awad Hamed al-Bandar were likewise executed on January 15, 2007; as was Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam’s former deputy and former vice-president (originally sentenced to life in prison but later to death by hanging), on March 20, 2007. Ramadan was the fourth and last man in the al-Dujail trial to die by hanging for crimes against humanity.
At the Anfal genocide trial, Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (aka Chemical Ali), former defense minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed al-Tay, and former deputy Hussein Rashid Mohammed were sentenced to hang for their role in the Al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurd’s on June 24, 2007.
Acts of sectarian violence have led to claims of ethnic cleansing in Iraq, and there have been many attacks on Iraqi minorities such as the Yezidis, Mandeans, Assyrians and others.
In 2007 Foreign Policy Magazine named Iraq as the second most unstable nation in the world after Sudan.
Although violence has declined from the summer of 2007, the U.N. reported of a cholera outbreak in Iraq.
The dispersion of native Iraqis to other countries is known as the Iraqi diaspora. There have been many large-scale waves of emigration from Iraq, beginning early in the regime of Saddam Hussein and continuing through to 2007. The UN High Commission for Refugees has estimated that nearly two million Iraqis have fled the country in recent years, mostly to Jordan and Syria. Although some expatriates returned to Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the flow had virtually stopped by 2006.
In addition to the 2 million Iraqis who fled to neighboring countries, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimates the number of people currently displaced within the country at 1.9 million.
Roughly 40% of Iraq’s middle class is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return. Refugees are mired in poverty as they are generally barred from working in their host countries.
In recent times the Diaspora seems to be reversing with the increased security of the last few months, and the Iraqi government claims that so far 46,000 refugees have returned to their homes in October of 2007 alone.