Iraq Historical Setting
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Calif's head that appears as an ornament on golden harp from Ur, ca. 2500 B.C.
IRAQ, A REPUBLIC since the 1958 coup d'etat that ended the reign of King Faisal II, became a sovereign, independent state in 1932. Although the modern state, the Republic of Iraq, is quite young, the history of the land and its people dates back more than 5,000 years. Indeed, Iraq contains the world's richest known archaeological sites. Here, in ancient Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers), the first civilization--that of Sumer-- appeared in the Near East. Despite the millennium separating the two epochs, Iraqi history displays a continuity shaped by adaptation to the ebbings and flowings of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in Arabic, the Dijlis and Furat, respectively). Allowed to flow unchecked, the rivers wrought destruction in terrible floods that inundated whole towns. When the rivers were controlled by irrigation dikes and other waterworks, the land became extremely fertile.
The dual nature of the Tigris and the Euphrates--their potential to be destructive or productive--has resulted in two distinct legacies found throughout Iraqi history. On the one hand, Mesopotamia's plentiful water resources and lush river valleys allowed for the production of surplus food that served as the basis for the civilizing trend begun at Sumer and preserved by rulers such as Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), Cyrus (550-530 B.C.), Darius (520-485 B.C.), Alexander (336-323 B.C.), and the Abbasids (750-1258). The ancient cities of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria all were located in what is now Iraq. Surplus food production and joint irrigation and flood control efforts facilitated the growth of a powerful and expanding state.
Mesopotamia could also be an extremely threatening environment, however, driving its peoples to seek security from the vicissitudes of nature. Throughout Iraqi history, various groups have formed autonomous, self-contained social units. Allegiance to ancient religious deities at Ur and Eridu, membership in the Shiat Ali (or party of Ali, the small group of followers that supported Ali ibn Abu Talib as rightful leader of the Islamic community in the seventh century), residence in the asnaf (guilds) or the mahallat (city quarters) of Baghdad under the Ottoman Turks, membership in one of a multitude of tribes--such efforts to build autonomous security-providing structures have exerted a powerful centrifugal force on Iraqi culture.
Two other factors that have inhibited political centralization are the absence of stone and Iraq's geographic location as the eastern flank of the Arab world. For much of Iraqi history, the lack of stone has severely hindered the building of roads. As a result, many parts of the country have remained beyond government control. Also, because it borders nonArab Turkey and Iran and because of the great agricultural potential of its river valley, Iraq has attracted waves of ethnically diverse migrations. Although this influx of people has enriched Iraqi culture, it also has disrupted the country's internal balance and has led to deep-seated schisms.
Throughout Iraqi history, the conflict between political fragmentation and centralization has been reflected in the struggles among tribes and cities for the food-producing flatlands of the river valleys. When a central power neglected to keep the waterworks in repair, land fell into disuse, and tribes attacked settled peoples for precious and scarce agricultural commodities. For nearly 600 years, between the collapse of the Abbasid Empire in the thirteenth century and the waning years of the Ottoman era in the late nineteenth century, government authority was tenuous and tribal Iraq was, in effect, autonomous. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Iraq's disconnected, and often antagonistic, ethnic, religious, and tribal social groups professed little or no allegiance to the central government. As a result, the all-consuming concern of contemporary Iraqi history has been the forging of a nation-state out of this diverse and conflict-ridden social structure and the concomitant transformation of parochial loyalties, both tribal and ethnic, into a national identity.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the tanzimat reforms (an administrative and legal reorganization of the Ottoman Empire), the emergence of private property, and the tying of Iraq to the world capitalist market severely altered Iraq's social structure. Tribal shaykhs (see Glossary) traditionally had provided both spiritual leadership and tribal security. Land reform and increasing links with the West transformed many shaykhs into profit-seeking landlords, whose tribesmen became impoverished sharecroppers. Moreover, as Western economic penetration increased, the products of Iraq's once-prosperous craftsmen were displaced by machine-made British textiles.
During the twentieth century, as the power of tribal Iraq waned, Baghdad benefited from the rise of a centralized governmental apparatus, a burgeoning bureaucracy, increased educational opportunities, and the growth of the oil industry. The transformation of the urban-tribal balance resulted in a massive rural-to-urban migration. The disruption of existing parochial loyalties and the rise of new class relations based on economics fueled frequent tribal rebellions and urban uprisings during much of the twentieth century.
Iraq's social fabric was in the throes of a destabilizing transition in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, because of its foreign roots, the Iraqi political system suffered from a severe legitimacy crisis. Beginning with its League of Nations Mandate in 1920, the British government had laid out the institutional framework for Iraqi government and politics. Britain imposed a Hashimite (also seen as Hashemite) monarchy, defined the territorial limits of Iraq with little correspondence to natural frontiers or traditional tribal and ethnic settlements, and influenced the writing of a constitution and the structure of parliament. The British also supported narrowly based groups--such as the tribal shaykhs--over the growing, urban-based nationalist movement, and resorted to military force when British interests were threatened, as in the 1941 Rashid Ali coup.
Between 1918 and 1958, British policy in Iraq had farreaching effects. The majority of Iraqis were divorced from the political process, and the process itself failed to develop procedures for resolving internal conflicts other than rule by decree and the frequent use of repressive measures. Also, because the formative experiences of Iraq's post-1958 political leadership centered around clandestine opposition activity, decision making and government activity in general have been veiled in secrecy. Furthermore, because the country lacks deeply rooted national political institutions, political power frequently has been monopolized by a small elite, the members of which are often bound by close family or tribal ties.
Between the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 and the emergence of Saddam Husayn in the mid-1970s, Iraqi history was a chronicle of conspiracies, coups, countercoups, and fierce Kurdish uprisings. Beginning in 1975, however, with the signing of the Algiers Agreement--an agreement between Saddam Husayn and the shah of Iran that effectively ended Iranian military support for the Kurds in Iraq--Saddam Husayn was able to bring Iraq an unprecedented period of stability. He effectively used rising oil revenues to fund large-scale development projects, to increase public sector employment, and significantly to improve education and health care. This tied increasing numbers of Iraqis to the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party. As a result, for the first time in contemporary Iraqi history, an Iraqi leader successfully forged a national identity out of Iraq's diverse social structure. Saddam Husayn's achievements and Iraq's general prosperity, however, did not survive long. In September 1980, Iraqi troops crossed the border into Iran, embroiling the country in a costly war (see fig. 1).
Data as of May 1988
NOTE: The information regarding Iraq on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Iraq Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Iraq Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.