In the Cradle of Civilization

A Brief Outline of Iraq's History

By Ayad Al-Qazzaz | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

If Mesopotamia was where civilization began, one worries that its modern successor country, Iraq, may be where it ends. The country is both old and new. Mesopotamia (which means "the land between the two rivers" -- specifically, the Euphrates and the Tigris) was where traces of the earliest farming settlements and towns were found. Yet the state that we call Iraq has existed only since 1921. It was created in the wake of the Ottoman Empire's defeat in World War I.
Because Iraq's history is unfamiliar to educated readers, it may be useful to review the story of my homeland, for the world keeps getting embroiled in its conflicts. As the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia was home to several ancient cultures, including the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, and the Assyrians. Here were the Garden of Eden and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Here wheels were first made; here writing was invented; here Hammurabi (1800-1700 BCE) wrote the earliest complete legal code.

Modern Iraq is land of about 169,000 square miles, surrounded by six countries -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. Almost landlocked, its access to the sea is limited to two ports: Basra (on the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers) and Um Qasr (on the Persian Gulf). The summers are hot, dry, and often windy for, except in the north, the only rain falls during the winter.

Some 24 million people inhabit the country. The capital city, Baghdad, has about five million inhabitants. Basra, the gateway to the Gulf, has over 1.5 million and Mosul, in the north, has more than one million. Kirkuk has more than half a million people. Two especially holy Shii cities, Al-Najaf and Karbala, are both on the Euphrates southwest of Baghdad.

About 95 percent of all Iraqis are Muslim (around 60 percent of them following the Shii tradition), while four percent are Christian. Tiny groups of other faiths exist. As regards ethnic identity, about 76 percent are Arab and 18 percent are Kurds (chiefly Sunni). In addition, there are a few smaller ethnic communities, such as the Turkoman, Assyrians, Yazidis and Armenians. Arabic is the official language and is universally understood, but in the Kurdish area (mostly in the mountains of the north and east) one can also hear two distinct dialects of Kurdish.

There are two major sects within the Islamic Faith, the Sunni and the Shii (the word Shii is spelled differently by different writers). The origin of the split was political, revolving around the question of choosing the leader of the Muslim community after the death of Mohammad in 632 CE. One school of thought insisted that the elders of the community will choose the leader and the other school of thought insisted that Mohammad's cousin Ali should be the leader. The supporters of the latter view are called Shii. The word Shii is an Arabic term meaning "the supporter of Ali."

The main theological difference between the Shii and the Sunni concerns the word "Imam." From a Sunni perspective an Imam is an ordinary person who leads the Muslims in Friday prayer; he may officiate at marriage and give a sermon on Friday. From a Shii perspective an Imam is a special person. He has three important distinguishing characteristics: he must be a decendant of Ali, the Cousin of Mohammad; he has a capacity to understand the Quran on a deeper level than the ordinary Muslim; and he is infallible when acting in his capacity as Iman. Thus the Imam in the Shii traditions is a very special person. The majority of Shii believe that there are 12 Imams and the last one went in hiding around 870 CE, for fear of being assassinated by the government of day. The Shii believe the last Imam will return one day, bringing an end to injustice and oppression permeating Muslim societies and bringing the true Muslim society to earth, based on justice and fairness. The shii also believe that today we do not have an Imam, but a few deputies of the Imam (e.g. the grand Ayatollah) who may act on behalf of the Imam. In Iraq today, Ayatollah al-Sistani is considered one of the few Deputies of the Imam.


Muslim Arab warriors swept into Iraq for the first time in 637 CE, bringing Islam to a country that had deteriorated under foreign rulers. In 750 CE, the Abbasid Dynasty triumphed and the center of the Islamic Empire moved from Damascus to Iraq. Al Mansur, the second Caliphate in the Abbsides Dynasty, founded a new city, Baghdad, as the new capital of the Abbasid Empire. During the reign of Harun ar Rashid (786-810 CE) and his son al-Mamun, that empire reached a peak of splendor and intellectual creativity. Not only was Baghdad the center of Islamic culture in its most glorious efflorescence, but it was a prosperous trading center for textiles, leather, paper, and other industries. It was a magnet for scientists and intellectuals. The legendary Bayat al-Hikma Academy was established in 830CE, with several schools, astrological observatories, libraries, and facilities for translating philosophical works and other branches of knowledge from Greek, Aramaic, Indian and Persian into Arabic.

Yet the empire began declining over time and by 1256, Baghdad and the Abbasid caliphate were destroyed by the Mongols. In 1401, a Mongol warrior, Tamerlane, sacked Baghdad, massacred many of its inhabitants, and extinguished Islamic arts and scholarship everywhere except in his own capital, Samarkand. Not until 1534 did the Ottoman Sultan, Sulayman the Magnificent, absorb Iraq into his empire. Thereafter, except for a period during the seventeenth century when the country was under Persian rule, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was dismantled in the aftermath of World War I.

The Ottoman rulers divided Iraq into three administrative provinces: Mosul in the north, which includes most of the Kurdish population; Baghdad; and Basra, which includes most of the Arab population. During the whole Ottoman period Iraq remained in decline, for the country was neglected and its economy was in chaos. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, a few of the Turkish governors introduced improvements in the schools, the legal code, the provincial government, the army, and transportation.


During World War I, the British occupied Iraq and, as an outcome of that war, were given a mandate by the Treaty of Sevres to administer the country. In 1921, Britain established a constitutional monarchy headed by a member of the Hashemite dynasty of Arabia, Faisal Ibn Hussain, who had participated in an anti-Turkish Revolt six years before. In 1932, Iraq became a sovereign state and joined the League of Nations. However, it remained politically unstable, undergoing tribal and ethnic insurrections and one military coup or counter-coup after another. For the next quarter-century, England continued to influence Iraq's rulers, who were often corrupt in both political and economic terms. Nevertheless, a limited system of modern, secular education was provided for the public and, by the early 1950s, the increasing oil revenue was enabling a degree of economic development to occur.

In 1941, a nationalistic government came to power with a new prime minister who broke diplomatic relations with Germany - but only reluctantly and only to comply minimally with treaty obligations to Britain. Angered, the British therefore re-occupied Iraq and installed a pro-British government. Between 1941-1958, the main power was held by two British-oriented rulers: Nuri Said, who sometimes functioned as prime minister, and the regent, Abdel Ilih.


After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world -- at least 112 billion barrels. In 1927 large oil deposits were discovered near Kirkuk, a northern city on the edge of the Kurdish region. The Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) was formed -- a consortium of British Petroleum, Shell, Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), Mobil, and the French Petroleum Company, and it gained long-term concessions over almost the entire country. The Iraqi government had virtually no say over the management of its valuable resource until 1950. Since the 1950s oil production began to rise slowly as the Iraqi government slowly but steadily gained control over its oil. More oil was discovered in large quantities in the southern part of Iraq near Basra, the al Majnoon area near the Iranian border, and the area of Baghdad.

In 1972, the regime nationalized the oil industry and gradually doubled its production; by 1979 it was producing 3.5 million barrels a day. The rise in oil prices and oil production provided unprecedented amount of money, large portions of which were invested to improve Iraq's educational system, technological base, and social services. However, as a result of the Iraqi-Iranian War of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing sanctions against the country, and the invasion by US forces in 2003, oil production again declined. If the country is ever to match its peak 1979 production levels again, it must repair and modernize the petroleum industry's broken infrastructure.


The anti-colonialism of the post-World War II period influenced Iraq, along with other emerging nations, to resist British domination and to call for social and economic reforms. In 1958, a nationalistic military coup occurred under the leadership of General Abdel Al-Karim al-Qassim and his "Free Officers." The Hashemite King, the regent, and Nuri al Said were killed, and a new republic replaced the monarchy. Qassim introduced significant land reforms; expanded the educational system markedly; challenged the financial arrangements with oil companies, and in 1961 expropriated a large part of the IPC's concession area. Yet politics remained turbulent through that period, with attempts being made to assassinate Qassim and to instigate a Kurdish rebellion. In a bloody 1963 coup, the nationalistic Baath Party, with other nationalist forces, seized power. Nine months later the Baathists were ousted in a coup led by Adel Salim Arif, who had participated in the earlier Free Officers putsch of 1958.

In 1968, the Baathists regained power, bringing to prominence a vice-president named Saddam Hussein. The Baath Party was a secular Arab nationalist movement of non-Marxist socialist orientation; it had supporters throughout the Arab World, especially in Syria, and sought to reassert Arab nationalism and civilization against foreign domination. Saddam Hussein was soon the undisputed leader of the country, eliminating his enemies with systematic brutality and controlling the lives of ordinary people through the use of multiple security forces. No political activities were tolerated except by Baathists.

Iran, Israel, and the United States now considered Iraq a threat to their interests and undertook to destabilize the Baathist regime by supporting a Kurdish revolt in the north. Saddam tried, but failed, to quash that rebellion. In 1975 he attempted a new approach. He reached an agreement with the Shah of Iran while both were attending a meeting of OPEC (oil producing exporting countries) in Algeria, whereby the Shah would end his support of the Kurds in exchange for Iraq's agreement to share Shatt Al-Arab, the waterway to the Arabian-Persian Gulf. As a result, Saddam was immediately successful in subduing the Kurdish rebels for several years.


Saddam stepped up officially into the presidency in 1979, immediately eliminating a number of his enemies in the Baath Party who had been -- according to him -- plotting against him. Soon Iran was undergoing a revolution, which impaired the perpetually fraught relations between the two countries. In a serious miscalculation Saddam launched an invasion of Iran in September 1980, using the ongoing border clashes as a justification and expecting to win the war in short order. This proved to be far from the case. During eight years of fighting, Iraq would incur losses of hundreds of thousands of lives and the destruction of its economy. Iran bombed Iraq's oil infrastructure in the south and encouraged a new Kurdish uprising. By July 1988, when the war officially ended, Iraq's economy was shattered and it owed $80 billion to foreign countries.

Thereafter, Saddam set about trying to bring order back to the country, largely by attacking the Kurds again. On the world market, oil prices dropped at about that time, exacerbating Iraq's poor relations with Kuwait, whom Saddam accused of deliberately seeking to harm his economy. In fact, both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were producing more oil than OPEC had established as their quota. Saddam charged that this practice was keeping prices low, thereby reducing the revenue that Iraq desperately required for postwar reconstruction.

The Kuwaiti leadership rejected Saddam's demands and the US Ambassador to Iraq informed him that her government did not consider his quarrels any business of theirs. Yet, at the same time, both Britain and the United States seemed to urge the Kuwaitis to stand firm in the dispute with Iraq. In this morass of miscommunication, Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, precipitating a crisis that would lead six months later to the invasion of his own country by the United States and its hastily-assembled coalition of allies -- a military engagement called "Operation Desert Storm." Saddam's armies never stood a chance.

The war lasted only 43 days, yet in that time the United States and its partners dropped bombs equivalent in power to five to seven of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima. The planes flew more than 110,000 sorties, destroying Iraq's infrastructure -- its roads, sewage, water systems, telephone and electricity grids, bridges, communications systems, and factories. According to a United Nations report on the aftermath of the war, the bombing reduced Iraq to a pre-industrial society.

The Kurds in the north and Shii in the south seized this as an opportunity to revolt against Saddam. They expected to set up a regime more favorable to their concerns or, in the case of the Kurds, an independent sovereign state. Both groups, like Saddam before them, proved to be misguided in their optimism. Despite his devastating defeat by the United States and other powers, Saddam Hussein was still a force to be reckoned with. He managed to crush both insurrections, killing thousands of Iraqi insurgents and forcing hundreds of thousands of others to flee. In response, the United States, France, and Britain defined a large zone in the north where no Iraqi aircraft would be allowed to fly. They also offered protection to those within the Kurdish zone of Iraq, allowing the inhabitants to set up an interim government. This de facto independence has remained in force; there Kurds rule themselves, speak their own language, collect their own taxes, and manage their own schools and finances.

Because of sanctions, the aftermath of the war in Iraq was far worse than it need have been. Immediately after its forces invaded Kuwait, the UN Security Council imposed severe economic sanctions and an embargo on Iraq, seeking to force Saddam to comply with its demands by withdrawing his military. When the war was over, the Security Council passed additional resolutions continuing the sanctions and embargo until Iraq dismantled its long- and medium-range missiles and its biological, nuclear, and chemical weapons. The verification of this process was to have been conducted by two organizations: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been inspecting Iraq's nuclear facilities since the 1970s, and a new United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) chaired by a Swede, Rolf Ekeus. A permanent UN monitoring system would be established to detect any Iraqi missile or nuclear installations.


To avoid imposing hardship on the Iraqi people, the United Nations passed another resolution allotting a quota $1.6 billion for Iraq to acquire from oil sales every six months, to be spent on medical supplies and food. A portion of this money was to be used in reparations to Kuwait and the Unit d Nations. Since Iraq's government disliked the intrusiveness of UNSCOM's inspections and the UN's control of Iraq's oil revenue, it rejected the resolution and resisted the inspection teams, provoking a strong reaction from the United States. In 1993, 1996, and 1998, American planes bombed Iraq to underscore its demand for compliance with the inspection resolutions. The head of UNSCOM, Richard Butler, withdraw his teams from Iraq in 1998 without being ordered to do so by the Security Council; thereafter, until 2002, there were no more inspections. The UN had already destroyed more than 95 percent of Iraq's weapons. Iraq claimed that it had destroyed the remainder itself, but without explaining how, when, or where. Iraqi objections to the inspections were not wholly baseless, for the US government had been improperly using some members of the teams as spies.

Despite the concerns of the United Nations to prevent undue hardship, the citizens of Iraq suffered terribly from the sanctions and the embargo. Hospitals, electrical power, and sanitation systems broke down; there were food shortages, even among children, that resulted in dreadful mortality rates. The social impact was reflected in the disastrous changes in crime, divorce, marriage, schooling, and homelessness rates. The oil industry -- the mainstay of the economy -- could no longer function properly for lack of spare parts. Over a period of nearly 13 years, more than one million people -- many of them children, women, and the aged -- died as a result of the sanctions. The revenue from black market oil did not reach the starving people.

Two Chief Relief Coordinators for the United Nations, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned in protest against the sanctions. Not until 1996 did the Iraqi government accept the terms of the resolution permitting the sale of $1.6 billion in oil every six months. In 1998, this amount was increased to $5.52 billion and in 1999 to $8.3 billion.


The attack by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came in 2001 when the foreign policy of the US administration was being set by neo-conservatives who had long advocated efforts to unseat Saddam Hussein. Under their influence, Congress already had allocated $100 million in 1998 to help the Iraqi opposition groups remove Saddam. After the 9/11 terrorism, neo- conservatives seized the opportunity to use military means of ousting him. The US successfully demanded that the United Nations adopt a new resolution requiring that Iraq allow inspection teams to return.

Two such teams went to Iraq: one was from the International Atomic Energy Agency headed by Mohamed ElBaradei from Egypt. The other was from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMVI) headed by Hans Blix, from Sweden. With the new resolution, which Iraq accepted, the inspectors had more authority than before. Iraq continued to insist that it had destroyed all weapons of mass destruction, though it could not account for the missing items. Britain joined the United States in refusing to wait for more inspections. Both countries maintained that Iraq still had such weapons and was a threat to world security.

In March 2003, the two countries invaded Iraq, despite the opposition of public opinion throughout the world and in clear defiance of international law. By April 9, Baghdad fell. Further inspections of Iraq have failed to locate the alleged stockpiles of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons. All claims that they existed were evidently neo-conservative lies, produced to sell the war to the American public. Nevertheless, in May 2003, the United National Security Council adopted a resolution that legalized the invasion, which most members of the United Nations had considered illegal. As the occupation of Iraq continued, resistance mounted, and the United States successfully pressured the UN in October 2003 to adopt a resolution authorizing a multinational force under US command to reduce the burden on the American occupying forces. In an attempt by U.S. government to quiet domestic criticism of its failed policy about Iraq and to keep it from influencing the election, on June 28, 2004 the US government hastily arranged the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government head by Ayad Allawi, who had worked closely with CIA in the 1990s and the early part of this decade. The transfer of power was a formality more than a reality. Around 130,000 American troops are still in Iraq, directing and shaping the policy of the country and trying to eliminate the growing resistance against them.

For more information on Iraq, see:

Sarah Graham-Brown, Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq. London, 1999.

Majid Khadduri and Edmund Ghareeb, War in the Gulf, 1990-91: The Iraq-Kuwait Conflict and its Implications New York: 1997.

Sandra Mackay, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein New York: 2002.

Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq. Cambridge, England, 2000.

Ayad Al-Qazzaz is a professor of sociology at Sacramento State University.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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