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Iraq

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Map of Iraq.
[Iraq is] the cradle of civilization. It's the place where we get the first cities, the first writing, the first thoughts about what's man's relationship to God. It's the first sort of ideas about death. It's the first recorded literature that we have.
—McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago.[1]

The Republic of Iraq is a struggling nation in the Middle East. It is currently crippled by war, corruption, and sectarianism. Iraq is home to diverse ethnic groups including Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Shabakis, Yazidis, Armenians, Mandeans, Circassians, Sabians and Kawliya.[2] The vast majority of the Iraqi population follow Islam. Around 64-69% of the population are Shia and about 29-34% are Sunnis.[3] Iraq's capital and largest city is Baghdad.

It wasn't always this way. Until relatively recently, Iraq was one of the most important regions in the world. The region between Iraq's Tigris and Euphrates rivers, historically known as Mesopotamia, holds the earliest known examples of writing, laws, and organized government. Mesopotamia was the center of the Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires. After Mesopotamia's decline, it was incorporated into various Persian empires like the Achaemenids and the Sassanids. Iraq joined the Islamic world during the conquests of the early caliphates, led by Muhammad's immediate successors. Iraq became the heartland of the caliphates, once again becoming the center of global civilization. After the Mongol Empire sacked Baghdad and destroyed the caliphates, Iraq entered a long period of decline. It eventually came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire before being placed under a British puppet monarchy after World War I.

Iraq became fully independent from the British Empire in 1932. The monarchy fell to a coup in 1958, establishing a republic. Iraq was controlled by the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party from 1968, and this period led to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Hussein discriminated against Shiites, launched the devastating Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and invaded Kuwait in 1991. He met his downfall when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on false pretenses, beginning the Iraq War. The dissolution of Hussein's government saw the beginning of a period of insurgency and sectarian civil war between various terrorist groups and the US-backed Iraqi government that continues to this day.

In modern times, Iraq might not be a powerful or stable state, but it is still a site of global attention. This is because Iraq has the world's fifth-largest proven oil reserves, accounting for about 9% of the known global supply.[4] Iraq is actually a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) economic alliance. More so than its OPEC partners, however, Iraq is critically dependent on oil exports. Crude petroleum accounted for 95% of Iraq's $60.8 billion in exports in 2017.[4]

Historical overview[edit]

The Great Ziggurat of Ur.

Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations[edit]

Early Sumer[edit]

The term Mesopotamia refers to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. During ancient times, Mesopotamia was a land of lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and copious if unpredictable water resources.[5] From a very early date, Mesopotamia attracted large numbers of human beings for settlement.

Urukian pottery art.

It cannot possibly be overstated how important the rivers were in shaping early Mesopotamian civilization. On one hand, the rivers provided plentiful water and food supplies.[6] These surpluses allowed for population growth and the rise of civilization and intellectual pursuits. It's easier to write literature and build stuff when you're not starving, after all. However, the rivers were a double-edged sword. They had an irregular flooding season and often created devastating natural disasters.[6] They also weren't navigable.[6] As a result, Mesopotamians were fearful and isolated, building huge walled city-states that constantly warred with each other.[6] These wars made the Mesopotamians extremely good at warfare.

Sumer, the earliest known civilization in Mesopotamia, arose in the southern part of the region around 4500 BCE.[7] As suggested above, Sumer was far from a unified civilization. Instead, it was a collection of culturally-similar but independent city-states. The most notable ones were Eridu, Kish, Uruk, Ur, Nippur, and Akkad. The Sumerians developed the oldest known examples of writing, irrigation, astronomy, and governance.[5] These innovations allowed the Sumerians to adapt to their harsh and unpredictable environment.

Sumerian cities were ruled by kings who were assisted by councils of elders and senior preists.[8] As city-states centralized they built greater constructions from mud-bricks, started using wheeled chariots, and finally invented bronze by mixing tin and copper.[5]

Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BCE)[edit]

Akkadian soldiers kick ass.
She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals.... Her wrath is a devastating flood which no one can withstand.
—Enheduana describes her terrifying goddess Ishtar.[9]

With these developments in place, the stage was set for the world's first empire. It was founded by Sargon of Akkad (not the dipshit modern one), who conquered Mesopotamia and its surroundings.[10] Sargon kept his empire together by having his most trusted followers marry into positions of power in the conquered cities. His daughter, Enheduanna, became high priestess of the most important temple in Sumer (in the city of Ur), and was responsible for unifying Mesopotamia's religious traditions to keep the empire cohesive.[11] This woman is also the world's earliest author known by name, so sexists can go fuck themselves with that.[11]

Despite their military ability and ruleship style, the Akkadians still fell to revolts just 200 years after their empire was founded.

Babylonian Empire (1894–1595 BCE)[edit]

Babylonian approximation of √2.
If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.
—Hammurabi's Code, law #8.[12]

Babylon was originally just a city in Mesopotamia, but it also managed to conquer itself an empire. Babylon is particularly famous in the modern day due to its many references in the Bible. Just about all of those references were negative, including the Tower of Babel story, and its inclusion in the Book of Revelation.[13]

Its most notable contributions to history, however, have nothing at all to do with the Bible. By the time of Babylonia's sixth king, it ruled a much larger swath of land than the Akkadians had. In order to manage all of that territory, the king, Hammurabi, wrote up a comprehensive code of laws which would apply to all citizens of his empire. The Code of Hammurabi largely dealt with contracts, legal liability, and punishments for crimes. It notably prescribed different punishments for men and women and made punishments harsher based on a person's social status.[14] It also notably reflected a separation between temporal and religious authorities.

The Babylonians also made significant advances in mathematics, including algebra, square roots, growth formulas, cubic equations, and advanced geometry.[15] These mathematical principles originated here but were enormously influential in places like Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Despite these advancements, the Babylonians were short-lived due to being destroyed by the Hittites of Anatolia. This brought about a prolonged period where Mesopotamian city-states were at war and no longer united in a centralized state.

Assyrian Empire (911–609 BCE)[edit]

Assyrian horsemen cut down defeated enemies.
I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.
—Ashurbanipal, Assyrian ruler.[16]

Beginning in the city of Ashur, the Assyrian Empire expanded rapidly through Mesopotamia. This expansion was fueled by the Assyrians' military prowess. They built the world's first professional army, who utilized effective siege tactics and iron weapons to cut through opposing armies with ease.[16] That wasn't it, though. The Assyrians combined their skill at warfare with an emphasis on spreading absolute terror. People and rulers who resisted them were horrifically butchered in public in order to make examples of them.

Ashurbanipal at war, depicted in the Assyrian palace at Nineveh.

Instead of trying to accommodate conquered peoples, the Assyrians just got rid of them. When they conquered a population, the Assyrians would divide that population according to their skills and deport them all over the empire.[17] Once dispersed in that way, said population was unable to mount an organized uprising against Assyrian rule.

Despite that brutal history, the Assyrians also left behind a great cultural legacy. That legacy was Ashurbanipal's library at his capital in Nineveh. This was the first library in the world, and its collections of ancient literature from all corners of the old world is the source of most of what modern historians now know about Mesopotamia.[18] Among the pieces in its collection was the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest known piece of literature.

Assyrian brutality proved to be their downfall. Although they dispersed conquered peoples, those people were still eventually able to unite with each other regardless of cultural background against their hated oppressors.[5]

Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539 BCE)[edit]

Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar's army.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it.
Daniel 1:1.

The last of the great Mesopotamian civilizations, the Neo-Babylonian Empire arose from the revolts against Assyrian power.[5] The empire is named this way because it deliberately tried to return Mesopotamia to its good old days under the Babylonian Empire by restoring the city of Babylon and building the Hanging Gardens.[5]

The short-lived empire's most famous (and infamous) ruler was Nebuchadnezzar II who restored Babylon, built the Gardens, and fought a long series of wars to defend his state from the Assyrian remnants and from Ancient Egypt.[19] He's not famous for his landmarks or his military victories. Instead, he's known in the modern day for the very unflattering portrayal he has in the Bible's Book of Daniel, where he's a supervillain who burns people alive.

The Jews had fairly good reason to hate the guy's guts. You see, during the wars with Egypt, the Kingdom of Judah served as a buffer state between the two powers. Nebuchadnezzar got tired of that and just conquered the state for himself, laying siege to Jerusalem in 586 BCE and smashing the Jewish great temple.[20] Continuing the Assyrian tradition, the king then forcibly deported the Jews out of their city, beginning the first period of Jewish Exile.[21]

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was later dismantled by Cyrus the Great of Persia.

Persian rule[edit]

The ruins of the Parthian city of Hatra.
See the main article on this topic: Iran

Cyrus the Great, the most notable ruler of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, actually had a fairly easy time conquering Mesopotamia. He built his empire on the principles of cooperation and religious liberty, and many cities including Babylon itself simply welcomed him in to take charge.[22] Indeed, Cyrus, despite being a foreigner, quickly won the loyalty of the Mesopotamian people just by virtue of not being a murderous fuckhead. He respected local customs, publicly honored local gods, and returned loot that had been stolen by previous Mesopotamian empires.[23] By the standards of ancient history, Cyrus was just a really nice guy. His most renowned act of mercy was freeing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and even giving them funds to rebuilt Jerusalem.[23] The Jews became a Persian client state, and an extremely loyal one at that.

After Cyrus died, Mesopotamia experienced a period of unrest which was eventually put down by Cyrus' successor Darius. Under Darius' rule, the Persian Empire built roads through Mesopotamia, finally allowing for efficient transport and trade throughout the region.[24] As the Achaemenid Persian empire decayed and experienced a run of bad emperors, the Mesopotamians became restless as their treatment became worse. When The Persians were finally conquered by Alexander the Great, the Mesopotamians welcomed him as a liberator. Alexander, like Cyrus before him, made a big show of honoring local traditions and gods.[24] Alexander died young, though, and his generals who took over the new Persian state weren't nearly as benevolent as he.

In 126 BCE, the Parthian Empire overtook the old Alexander leftovers. During this period, Mesopotamia's population enlarged greatly due to immigration from Persia and the Arabian Peninsula, which was driven by Mesopotamia's prosperity in this time period. Despite Parthia's enmity with the Roman Empire, Roman culture was quite influential in the region. That influence saw much of Mesopotamia's population convert to Christianity.[25] That period ended during the Sasanian Empire; although not much is known about this time, it is apparent that by the end of their rule Mesopotamia infrastructure was in ruins and its culture dying.[24]

Islamic conquest and Arab rule[edit]

Islamic scholars in an Iraqi library during the Abbasid era.

The Sasanian Empire never considered the disunited Arab tribes to be a threat, but things changed rapidly in the early 600s CE when Muhammad united the tribes and their peninsula under the banner of his fancy new religion Islam. Indeed, Muhammad did the hard part, as overcoming Arabia's entrenched tribalism was nearly impossible. However, once united, the Arabs became an extremely powerful military force led by Muhammad's successor, Caliph Abu Bakr. The Sasanian Empire was weakened by its wars with the Byzantine Empire, so the Arabs managed to overrun their armies with relative ease.

Socrates and his students depicted in a Thirteenth Century Arab manuscript.

In Mesopotamia, soon to be named Iraq by the Arabs,[26] the majority Christian population chose to pay the extra infidel tax and were thus left alone by the Muslim conquerors. The Iraqis ended up being quite loyal to their new Muslim overlords. The Muslims were fighting according to the old rules of jihad, which forbade the rape of women or the murder of noncombatants.[27] The Arabs also intended to colonize Iraq with their own people, so destroying cities and burning farms wasn't on the agenda either. Again, by the standards of warfare in this period of time, the Muslims were quite benevolent. Over the following centuries, the Iraqis intermarried with the Arabs and converted to Islam.

During the reign of Caliph Umar, Iraq became the heartland of the Rashidun Caliphate, with the two great cities Basra and Kufah being built to consolidate its economy and protect it from outside invaders.[27] During this time, Iraq also played host to one of the most critical events in Islamic history. A power struggle inside the Rashidun Caliphate reignited controversies over the original succession after Muhammad's death, leading to the Sunni vs. Shia divide.[28] These events led to the downfall of the Rashiduns and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was rigorously opposed by the Shias. The Umayyads transferred their seat of power from Iraq to Syria, causing the Iraqis to become restive.[28]

The Iraqis eventually turned their support to Abd al Abbas, a Sunni descendant of Muhammad's uncle who defeated the Umayyads in battle and was crowned caliph in Baghdad in 750 CE.[29] This created the Abbasid Caliphate, and this period was Iraq's golden age. Baghdad became a center of power where Arab and Iranian cultures mingled with Classical Greek and Roman works to produce an outpouring of philosophy, science, and literature. Its wealth and population grew rapidly, and in 775 CE it became the first city in the world to reach a population of one million.[30]

Just how influential was Baghdad's culture. From its literature, the English language gets words like "nadir", "zenith", "alcohol", "algebra", "algorithm", "alchemy", and "alembic."[31]

Mongol invasions[edit]

Destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 CE.

Iraq was doing its thing under Arab rule and enjoying its prosperity and learning, but then Genghis Khan showed up. Khan's horde of 700,000 soldiers started rampaging through Central Asia in 1219 CE, destroying great cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Merv.[32] Genghis Khan made it all the way to Azerbaijan before dying in 1227.

His son and successor, Hulagu Khan, put together a multinational team of siege experts and set his sights on the wealthy heartland of Islamic civilization. In 1257, he arrived at Baghdad to demand the caliph's surrender.[31] When the caliph refused, Hulagu decided to make an example of him and his city. He sieged the city and broke its walls by 1258. Then the slaughter began, as the Mongol soldiers killed somewhere in the range of a million people before looting Baghdad's treasury and throwing its books into the Tigris river.[31] He also executed the last Abbasid caliph and built a mountain of skulls from Baghdad's scholars, religious leaders, and poets. That act of destruction in 1258 decisively marked the end of Iraq's golden age.

Pyramid of skulls left by the Mongols.

The Mongol Empire was later divided between Genghis Khan's heirs. Iraq became a neglected frontier province of the Ilkhanate, which was based out of Iran. Things didn't get any better when the Mongols collapsed, as the power vacuum resulted in a chaotic struggle for power that embroiled Iraq into a prolonged war between various factions.

This state of affairs persisted until about 1370, when the infamous warlord Timur Lenk invaded Central Asia. Timur was a member of the Turkicized Barlas tribe, a Mongol subgroup that had settled in Transoxania (now roughly corresponding to Uzbekistan) and converted to Islam after taking part in Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai's campaigns in that region.[33] Timur then rose to become a powerful Mongol leader who declared himself the "defender of Islam", launched genocides against Indian Hindus, Egyptian and Turkish "usurpers", and Middle Eastern Christians.[34][35] Like Hulagu Khan, Timur Lenk liked to make skull pyramids. He hit Baghdad again and had 90,000 of the city's residents beheaded.[36] Timur might have claimed to be a pious Sunni Muslim, but his exploits permanently damaged the religion and the entire Middle East. Through plunder and slaughter, Timur destroyed Islamic scholarship throughout the entire region.[32]

Further decline[edit]

In the wake of these Mongol warlords, Iraq underwent a period of political disintegration and economic collapse. Basically, about what you'd expect after getting flattened by two genocidal regimes in rapid succession. Baghdad had once been the place to be during the Middle Ages. After the Mongols it rapidly sank into the status of an irrelevant cattle town notable only for its fantastic history. Part of that happened due to destruction, and part of that happened because Portugal's colonial trading empire established trading routes through the ocean that bypassed Baghdad.[32]

The 1514 Battle of Chaldiran, one of the many Ottoman-Safavid conflicts over Iraq.

During the Mongol conquests, the warlords made sure to destroy Iraq's carefully-constructed irrigation system in order to uproot its population and destroy the region's ability to make war. As a result, famine overtook much of the once-Fertile Crescent. This was the beginning of the region's deterioration into inhospitable desert and unlivable marshland.[32] The changing environment meant that Iraq's great civilizations couldn't continue; Iraqis instead fell into a sort of tribal nomadism that persists to this day.

Ottoman and Safavid era[edit]

Between the 1500s and the early 1900s, Iraq got sucked into a massive region-wide struggle between two massively powerful empires: the Ottomans and the Safavids. The Safavids, for their part, were theocratic Shia Muslims who wanted to control historic Shia holy sites in Iraq.[37] The Ottomans, on the other hand, were Sunni Muslims who feared the spread of the Shia religion into their lands and wanted to use Iraq as a buffer between Persia and Anatolia. A tale as old as time.

Festivities started in 1509 when the Safavids swept into Iraq to take over its tribal peoples. The Ottomans attacked them in turn attacked in the hopes to taking Iraq for themselves, beginning a centuries-long period of near-constant back-and-forth wars between the two powers. Poor Iraq was caught in the middle and used as a battleground for the Middle Eastern superpower pissing contest. The main consequence of the wars, apart from the general death and destruction, was the deepening of the divide between Iraq's Sunni-Shia divide. Both empires rather shamelessly used religious differences to encourage support among the appropriate segment of the Iraqi population.[37] Surely that increase of sectarianism wouldn't have any terrible consequences!

The Ottomans finally won out, seizing Iraq for good in 1638. This began a long period of oppression for Iraq's Shia population, who were excluded from economic opportunity and positions of influence.[37] Again, tale as old as time. Although the Ottomans placed Iraq under imperial rule, tribal authority still dominated, and the Ottomans allowed large migrations of nomadic Bedouins from Arabia.[37]

British excavation of Nineveh, 1852.

Over the centuries, the Ottoman Empire further declined and started to come under Western influence. By the 1800s, European "explorers" and adventurers were crawling throughout Iraq on the search for ancient artifacts and fun times. Claudius Rich from the British East India Company started by excavating Babylon and Nineveh, and Frenchman Paul Émile Botta Khorsabad to send a bunch of Mesopotamian artifacts to the Louvre.[38] Although the Europeans accomplished some important feats, such as translating Sumerian cuneiform and beginning scientific archaeology, there was a real dark side to their exploits. Europeans rather brazenly looted historic artifacts; it got so bad that the British Museum tried to launch investigations into why so many Sumerian tablets were ending up on the side streets of London.

World War I and Sykes-Picot[edit]

British troops enter Baghdad, 1917.
See the main article on this topic: World War I

In 1908, the Young Turks regime took power in the Ottoman Empire. That became relevant to the poor people of Iraq when the Young Turks embarked on their "Turkification" program designed to forcibly assimilate minority cultures. The Young Turks considered minority populations to be a threat to the empire's cohesiveness. They began Turkification by implementing a wide variety of social programs designed to make minority children into good Turks, including renaming children and requiring instruction in schools to be conducted only in Turkish.[39] The Iraqis didn't like that a whole bunch, surprise, surprise. Iraqi intellectuals turned towards their own identity as Arab Iraqis, and this marked the beginning of the Arab nationalist movement.[37]

Iraq became involved in the Great War when the Ottoman Empire declared war on the side of the Central Powers. Oil in Iraq became a major political concern for the first time, as British and French troops raced against each other to conquer Iraq's early oilfields.[40]

In 1915, the British and French struck the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, fucking over their Arab allies and ensuring that Iraq would be a puppet state to pump oil for them.[41] That decision, to artificially create the nation of "Iraq" proved to be a disaster. Under Ottoman administration, Iraq had been divided into three administrative regions designed to meet the needs of its largest population. Those three groups were Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish; all three of these groupings kept peace with each other by relying on the delicate veneer of Ottoman rule.[41] Those old power structures were dismantled by the West, and all groups were tossed into the same nation with no guarantees of safety against each other. It was a recipe for a devastating blowout. But not just yet.

British puppet kingdom[edit]

Coronation of King Faisal of Iraq. He's surrounded by British officers, who are really in charge here.

During the war, the British had allied with the Hashemite clan of Mecca, who claimed direct descent from Muhammad himself. In exchange for false promises from the Entente, the Hashemites led the Arab Revolt while the clan leader's son Prince Faisal went on a world tour to win support for Arab unification.[42] Unfortunately for them, the British and French backstabbed the Arabs and decided to make Iraq into a Western-dominated petrostate.

The British entered Iraq as conquerors, but they soon figured out that conquering Iraq is a hell of a lot easier than governing it. Sunnis and Shias started infighting, tribal leaders and villagers started arguing, and merchants started demanding that the British implement some kind of legal code to make sure society could actually fucking function. In other words, it was a clusterfuck. By 1920, though, the Sunnis and Shias actually managed to briefly put aside their differences in order to rise up against the British, beginning an insurgency that was very costly to the British in both blood and money.[43] With British finances on the ropes after the Great War, they realized they couldn't afford another Iraqi uprising. In an attempt to appease the people, the British crowned Prince Faisal as the king of Iraq in 1921 and gave Iraq more autonomy.

It didn't work. Faisal was not an Iraqi, and Iraqis viewed him as an illegitimate British puppet because he was an illegitimate British puppet. The king later proved that by caving in to British demands during negotiations over the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). Iraq originally demanded at least a 20% share in the oil company, but King Faisal caved and let the British edge the Iraqis out of the deal.[42] Keep in mind, this was Iraqi oil being drilled by Iraqi workers.

Mostly-independent, mostly non-puppet kingdom[edit]

Celebrating the 1958 revolution in Baghdad.

Iraqi nationalists didn't relent though, so the British finally agreed to Iraq being mostly-independent in 1932 and being admitted to the League of Nations. Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups again started fighting for supremacy in the new country, and this political turmoil largely destroyed the British-imposed government systems. The Sunnis, who historically had greater power and educational opportunities under the Ottomans, largely won out and further marginalized the majority Shia population.[44]

During this process, the British "helped" Iraq finalize its borders. Iraqi cities were cut off from their old trading partners, resulting in commercial dislocation and economic depression. In the south, that great big long border through the desert impeded tribal migrations and caused unrest. Uncertainty regarding Iraq's new borders with Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia created the potential for an international crisis or even an outright war. The British had really fucked this one up.

Things got even worse when Faisal died in 1933, meaning that Iraq lost its primary stabilizing force.[44] The new king was a dumb kid, and a rapid succession of military coups brought different factions into power throughout the rest of the 1930s. By the end of the 1930s, pan-Arabism had become a powerful ideological force in the Iraqi military, especially among younger officers who hailed from the northern provinces and who had suffered economically from the partition of the Ottoman Empire. These young officers were staunchly anti-British, especially when the British started violently suppressing revolts in Mandatory Palestine.

As World War II approached, Nazi Germany attempted to capitalize on the anti-British sentiments in Iraq to woo them all into the Axis. Another military coup in 1940 brought anti-British elements into power, who promptly started distancing Iraq from the UK.[44] The British retaliated by sending in the troops to reoccupy Iraq and place another puppet leader in charge of the country.[45] This only made Iraq's leadership crisis even worse after the war. Iraq also fell into an economic recession after the war, making living conditions for all citizens much worse.[46] Things culminated in 1958 when a group of Pan-Arab generals overview the monarchy in a popular 1958 coup.[47]

Ba'athist Iraq[edit]

Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein in 1978.

Coup leader Abd al-Karim Qasim took over as prime minister of a now republican Iraq, but his rule quickly descended into autocracy and infighting.[48] Qasim worked with Iraq's fairly small communist faction to improve the lot for the working poor. Reforms included ending absentee landlordism, and yanked the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) contract in favor of nationalizing Iraq's oil reserves for the people.[49] He also tended to side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War by signing arms and oil agreements.

Eventually, Qasim's leftist streak alienated his former allies and saw him deposed in a 1963 coup. The Iraqi poor immediately tried to rush to his defense, but the new military regime cut them off completely from the political process, ending any pretense at democracy.[49] These people were the Ba'ath Party who would later take complete control of the country, but ethnic unrest and various coups and counter-coups made things difficult for them.

The Ba'ath Party solidified its rule in 1968, with General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr taking leadership of the country and his relative Saddam Hussein acting as his enforcer within the party.[50] The party's ideology can be most accurately described as pan-Arabism mixed with secularism and authoritarianism.[51] The Ba'ath Party wasn't out to conquer other Arab countries. They considered Arab nationalism to be a long-term goal and sought to build solidarity with other Arab leaders.

What a friendly-looking man!

The party spent the early years of its reign focusing on Iraq's internal issues. They tried to replace Iraq's demographic divisions with a sense of Iraqi patriotism, and they nationalized large sectors of the Iraqi economy including agriculture, industry, and oil.[51] Despite these high-minded ideals, the party was still overtly authoritarian and was dominated by a handful of elite families. Among those family members was Saddam Hussein.

Hussein regime[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Saddam Hussein

Consolidating power[edit]

Saddam Hussein took over the party in 1979, and he immediately set about doing some remodels. Like the other two famous moustache men from history, Saddam decided that his old comrades were political threats and decided to get rid of them. He put many of them on show-trials for allegedly planning a coup. In one terrifying incident, Saddam stood in front of an audience of party members where he denounced high-ranking Ba'athists who were quickly ushered out of the auditorium and executed right outside the doors.[51]

He also undid his predecessors' quasi-socialist policies. Hussein sold off Iraq's national industries to private capitalist interests, usually cronies within the party.[50]

Iran-Iraq War[edit]

Iraqi soldiers surrender in the Battle of Khorramshahr.
See the main article on this topic: Iran-Iraq War

Neighboring Iran also experienced a regime change in 1979 when the theocrats overthrew the Shah. Saddam initially welcomed this news, since the Shah had been a longtime enemy of Iraq.[52] However, it turned out that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini wasn't any friendlier to Iraq than was his royal predecessor. The Ayatollah encouraged Iraq's Shiite minority to launch a revolt against Saddam's rule, and he frequently instigated violent border clashes between the two nations.[53] Iran's calls for a Shiite revolution was not ignored either, as Hussein's secular Ba'athist government still heavily discriminated against religious minorities.[52]

Saddam also had reasons of his own ambition to attack the Iranians. He wanted to annex Iran's oil-rich region of Khuzestan, which was directly across the border.[54] This would vastly increase Iraq's economic power and global political influence. It would also allow Iraq to gain major control over the Persian Gulf, through which a big chunk of the world's oil supply flows.[55]

Rummy with Saddam in 1983. We can't circulate this image enough.

As war became more and more likely, Hussein's government forcibly deported thousands of Iraqi Shias under the pretext that they were connected to Iran's government.[56] Hussein handled the 1980 invasion shockingly poorly, with his divisions untrained and his political expectations failing to materialize.[57] Although Iran's disorganized military was weaker on the ground, its air forces were more powerful and its soldiers were able to retreat into the cities to fight a protracted guerrilla war.[58]

Ba'athist propaganda illustration portraying Saddam Hussein as Nebuchadnezzar.

Eventually, the war settled into a trench-warfare stalemate.[59][60] Hussein used a variety of brutal tactics in an attempt to get the front lines moving again. He ordered rocket and strategic bombing attacks on Iranian cities.[61] This later escalated into overt use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, most notably the chemical weapons he built with assistance from the Ronald Reagan administration.[62][63] The Reagan administration's policy was to ensure an Iraqi victory at all costs and to protect shipping through the Persian Gulf.

The war finally ended in 1988 with a peace of exhaustion and no border changes. The killing wasn't over, though. Iran had cooperated with Kurdish separatist militias in northern Iraq, who had viewed Iran as the enemy of their enemy.[58] Hussein punished the Kurds with massacres and chemical weapons attacks, earning him their permanent enmity.[64]

Somewhere in the range of 100,000 Kurdish civilians died in Hussein's genocidal murdering spree.[65] The war itself had cost the lives of perhaps one to one-point-five million people.[66] Fuck.

Gulf War[edit]

Once a Kuwaiti oil field, now a battlefield.
See the main article on this topic: Gulf War

After that unfortunate little tussle with Iran and the Kurds, Iraq was mired in $37 billion worth of debt, much of it owed to Kuwait.[67] Realizing that he didn't have the funds to pay down the debt, Saddam gave a phone call to his pals in OPEC and Kuwait, asking them to hike up oil prices and forgive that whole owing-them-shitloads-of-money business.[67] Kuwait predictably replied with something along the lines of "you better have my fucking money, punk." At that point, Saddam abruptly realized that he had a much larger army than Kuwait did. You see where this is going.

Using an island dispute as pretext, Saddam Hussein ordered troops to invade Kuwait in 1990. The invasion went smoothly, and his soldiers ran around looting shit[68] while Saddam put Kuwait under a puppet government.[69] Eventually, he decided "fuck it" and just annexed the whole country.[70]

The US, meanwhile, complained to the UN and got the UN to sanction Iraq. The US and NATO allies stationed about a million troops in the Arabian Peninsula, which the Saudis allowed since they disapproved of Hussein's secularism and his military expansionism on their border.[71] Following more defiance from Saddam, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687, which authorized the coalition to use "all necessary means" to uphold the previous resolutions and liberate Kuwait.[72] Now with the green light from the UN, the coalition prepared for war.

After a massive air campaign that flattened much of Iraq's infrastructure, the coalition easily pushed them out of Kuwait. The US pushed for a quick resolution to the war and agreed to peace with Hussein without imposing very many penalties on him or even doing much damage to his military forces.[73] Therefore, Saddam was free to commit more horrifying crimes against humanity! Yay!

1991 uprisings[edit]

Iraqi tank destroyed by anti-Saddam rebels.

In order to prevent another conflict (ha!), the coalition powers decided to maintain economic and military sanctions on Iraq until the country had divested itself of chemical weapons and any other variety of WMD.[70] Saddam wasn't too interested in giving up his weapons just yet, and his military was mostly intact. As a result, these sanctions and even occasional military action were constant throughout the 1990s.[74]

Unfortunately, those sanctions and the resulting forever war didn't prevent Saddam from launching one of his worst atrocities. After Iraq's defeat in war, long-oppressed minority groups like the Kurds and Shiites launched a series of popular revolts against Ba'athist rule.[75] They had actually been encouraged in this by US president George H.W. Bush who had assigned the CIA to create a covert radio station to broadcast his messages to the people of Iraq.[76] For two, brief, glorious weeks, it actually looked like the uprisings were gaining traction. Rebels destroyed government administration in many towns, and disorganized army units were driven away.[77] Specific accounts can't be found for every instance, but in most cases it seems that a crowd of furious people would assemble in city centers before storming Ba'ath Party headquarters and prisons.

Eventually, however, the revolts faltered due to lack of coordination. Within two months, Saddam had brutally suppressed the movement using tactics such as ordering troops to shoot indiscriminately into residential areas, having people summarily executed in the streets and in hospitals, and sending helicopter gunships to shoot at fleeing civilians.[78] Refugees fleeing into other countries alleged that the Iraqi military had dropped napalm and chemical weapons onto them.

International observers estimate that about 100,000 people were killed during the uprising.[79][80]

US invasion of Iraq[edit]

Baghdad under US occupation, 2003.
See the main article on this topic: Iraq War
It’s sort of puzzling that you can have 100 percent confidence about WMD existence, but zero certainty about where they are.
—Hans Blix to the Council on Foreign Relations June 23, 2003.[81]

With Iraq a constant thorn in the world's side, a bunch of neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz got together towards the end of the 1990s cooked up this awesome idea to invade Iraq in order to isolate Iran and "bring peace" to the Middle East.[82] The "he has WMDs!" drumbeat started as early as the later Bill Clinton administration.[83] Nobody really took all of that seriously. But then 9/11 happened, and Americans learned to hate anything and everything about the Middle East. One not-long-enough story and one spree of clown-making in front of the UN later, the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

US forces quickly rolled in, deposed and captured Saddam Hussein, and turned over Iraq to find out that there actually weren't WMDs in Iraq because Saddam had spent most of the 1990s gradually destroying his stock.[81] Fucking oops.

Iraq paid the price of Bush's false war. The US bombing of Baghdad was horrible enough to kill about 100 civilians per hour, and the war's early stages resulted in between 150,000 and 600,000 Iraqi deaths.[84] Despite Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished", Iraq would remain embroiled in war for years and years to come. Fucking oops.

Saddam, meanwhile, finally got what was coming to him and died by hanging while Shias jeered at him and mocked his praying.[85] The overtly sectarian nature of his death only foreshadowed the horrors to come.

Absolute clusterfuck[edit]

Baghdad aflame in 2004.

Iraqi insurgency and sectarian civil war[edit]

So, once in control of the country, the US had to figure out how to start "nation-building" in Iraq. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration did this in the dumbest way possible.

First, contrary to previously-accepted strategies, the US decided to completely disband Iraq's military. That disastrous move left huge numbers of angry and war-trained Iraqis unemployed and with nothing better to do than join anti-US militias.[86] It also deprived the new Iraqi state of a competent fighting force, which would haunt it for years to come.

Then the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began a "de-Ba'athification" agenda that involved dismissing every Ba'ath Party member in government.[87] That completely hollowed out Iraq's government and put even more angry people on the streets. The US finished off by stocking Iraq's new government with Shia Muslims, who promptly dismantled many of the "democratic" power structures and started blatantly favoring themselves over the Sunnis.[88] That fatally inflamed sectarian tensions because of-fucking-course it did.

Patting down Iraqi boys.

Rather predictably, Iraq almost immediately exploded into violence both against the US and against other Iraqis. Al Qaeda, which had never been in Iraq in the first place despite Bush's claims, used the chaos as an opportunity to open up a new franchise in Iraq and become the face of global Sunni Islamic terrorism.[89] "Death Squads" from both major religious groups went on indiscriminate murdering and torturing sprees across the country.[90] The US had to escalate troop numbers in Iraq on a number of occasions, because it turns out that trying to occupy an unstable artificial country in the Middle East is harder than you might fucking think.

All of that subsequent death and destruction was made possible by the US' idiotic invasion. USA! USA! USA!

Then things got even worse.

War against DAESH[edit]

Mosul aflame during operations against DAESH, 2016.
See the main article on this topic: DAESH

As Al Qaeda moved into Iraq, it came under the leadership of Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who drew upon old extremist ideologies to inspire an insidious dream of sparking a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites and establishing a Sunni Islamic caliphate.[91] Zarqawi died in 2006, but his plan lived on. It culminated sometime around 2014, when DAESH exploded onto the world scene by taking over huge swathes of two countries and fighting against most of the world.

Crimes committed by DAESH include child kidnapping, slavery, and acts of genocide against Iraq's minority Yazidi community.[92] In 2014, the terrorist group abducted about 10,000 Yazidis from their communities, burning or beheading about 3,000 of that number.[93] Looting of antiquities has become a serious problem again with DAESH relying on the black market for funds.[94] DAESH also managed to hijack a good portion of Iraq's oil industry, generating an estimated $45 million per month by selling Iraqi oil.[95]

Under continuous assault by most of the world, DAESH finally faded after having conquered and brutalized much of Iraq's territory.

Ongoing war, featuring guest fighter Iran[edit]

One of the most effective factions fighting against DAESH were Shia militias supported by Iran's theocratic Shia regime.[96] DAESH, after all, was a serious threat right across the border, and the last time Iraq was controlled by a murderous warlord he launched a devastating 8-year war.[97]

The problem is that Iran swept in to save the day and, like America, hasn't swept back out again. Iran's proxy militias in total number about 200,000 fighters, and Iran seems all too willing to take advantage of political chaos to exert influence over Iraq's prime minister.[98] Even with DAESH defeated, these militias seem there to stay. Iran now seems to be dueling the US for influence over Iraq, with one major consequence being the US' assassination of Qasem Soleimani.[99][100] Iranian-backed militias now seem to be attacking US and allied forces.[101]

Sadly, the ongoing tragedy in Iraq shows now signs of slowing down. DAESH's revival remains a threat, other Sunni terrorist groups are still extant, and the US and Iran are both more determined than ever to exert geopolitical control over Iraq.[102]

Current government and politics[edit]

Iraq's Council of Representatives.

Authoritarianism and religious discrimination[edit]

The new government the US installed to replace Hussein has proven to be dysfunctional to the point of near-total failure. Almost from the very beginning, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki started sowing the seeds of a full Sunni revolt by enacting discriminatory policies towards them. Sunnis are disproportionately persecuted by law enforcement, often arrested for arbitrary reasons on "terrorism suspicions", and Sunni prisoners are occasionally tortured or held for ransom by the government.[103] Good job picking a democratic leader for Iraq, America!

Maliki used his term in office to concentrate power in his own hands, crack down on political opposition, and order the arrest and death sentence for Iraq's Vice President who just so happened to be the country's most powerful Sunni leader.[104] Maliki eventually went down in 2014, but only after putting up a serious political fight and begging the country's high court to overturn parliament's decision.[105]

Iraqi Kurdistan[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is largely populated by Kurds, and is recognized by the current Iraqi constitution as an autonomous region.[106] Kurds have historically been at odds with Iraq's government for just about as long as it's been a country. If you look at that "history" section above, you'll note quite a few instances of horrific crimes against the Kurdish population committed by the government.

Kurdistan still faces problems under the current administration. Youth unemployment is officially over 20 percent in the region, job prospects are lacking, and regional officials have created an atmosphere of fear and repression.[107] Between 2015 and 2018, Kurdish protests were met with police crackdowns and murders, and cutting of salaries.[107]

Economy[edit]

Oil tankers off the coast of Basra.

Oil[edit]

Iraq has the world's fifth-largest proven oil reserves, accounting for about 9% of the global supply.[4] As of now, Iraq's oil fields are largely unexploited, as war and corruption have prevented any significant exploration.[108]

Oil was discovered in Iraq during the Ottoman years, in 1912, by British industrialists.[109] Various European partners founded the Turkish Petroleum Company, which became the Iraqi Petroleum Company after the country's independence. Oil became a major factor in Iraq's foreign relations and economy, and it has remained so ever since.

United States v. Approximately 450 Ancient Cuneiform Tablets.

Iraq is a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The organization was actually founded in Baghdad in 1960 with an agreement signed between Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.[110] OPEC is a textbook example of an economic cartel that coordinates efforts in order to eliminate competition.[111] It is, however, above legal punishment and therefore operates with impunity. Despite being founding members, Iraq and Iran often differ on oil concerns. Iraq likes to pump shitloads of oil to drive prices down even while Iran suffers economically, which is a major point of dispute between the two countries.[112]

Looting[edit]

Unfortunately, Iraq's fragile political situation has created an environment in which it is disturbingly easy to buy looted goods from Iraq. Iraq's national museum in Baghdad has been looted multiple times by multiple actors, and goods stolen included the world's oldest representation of the human face and various clay tablets and idols.[113] Black market websites pawn off priceless historical artifacts for low, low, prices like a stone bull for $50, a clay cylinder seal for $150, and a lion-shaped stone amulet is on offer for $250.[113] This is just the tip of the iceberg for looted goods, folks, so head on down to the Iraqi Loot Emporium and pick up some home history today! These low prices are criminal!

One amusing incident saw the US government sue the shit out of Hobby Lobby for purchasing $1.6 million in stolen artifacts in order to create a Bible museum. No, really.[114] No, really.[115][116] That civil asset forfeiture court case with the amusing name you see to the right? Fucking real.

Looted oil is also commonplace on the market, as we demonstrated above with the example of DAESH selling oil to fund terrorism. US soldiers have gotten in on the action too, having stolen millions of dollars worth of oil.[117] Iraq occasionally likes to raise a stink about the issue and demand payment of at least $17 billion to compensate them for oil money it says the US stole from the Iraqi people.[118]

American soldiers have also more directly stolen money from the Iraqi government during transport.[119]

Health and environment[edit]

Mmmmmm breathe it in.
[The war against DAESH] is sadly just the latest episode in what has been the wholesale destruction of Iraq's environment over several decades. This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster. It makes living conditions dangerous and miserable, if not impossible.
—Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme.[120]

Most of Iraq is contaminated by toxic pollutants as a result of successive wars (Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War, Iraq War), decades of lax to non-existent environmental laws, and purposeful contamination on the part of its regimes.[121][122][123]

During the Gulf War and the Iraq War, there was a sharp increase in environmental teratogens of all types, along with increases in childhood cancers and birth defects.[124] Robert Fisk is no doctor, but he investigated the health crisis in Iraq, and there seemed to be a correlation between those cases and proximity to military sites hit by depleted uranium munitions.[125] It should be said though, that the main thrust of his investigation was how the sanctions imposed on Iraq crippled the local hospitals' abilities to treat those afflicted.[126] Unfortunately that is much harder to answer.

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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