Iraq and its recent history

The country

The Republic of Iraq is a country on the Persian Gulf in the Middle East which borders Iran, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Euphrates valley is arable but most of the country is harsh desert and mountains. The capital Baghdad sits roughly 1000 kilometres from the Iranian border. The two principle rivers in the country are the Euphrates and Tigris.

The people

95% of the population subscribe to one of two sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a Ithna. The other 5% belong to various Christian sects. The two main ethinic groups in the country are Arab (79%) and Kurdish (16%). There are small minority Turkish and Persian populations.

Over 75% of the population live in the cities, with extremely low standard of living in the rural areas. There is a huge shortage of trained medical personnel throughout the country, and diseases in the rural areas and the oppressed Kurdish regions are rampant.

The economy

Iraq has a large labour force and the second-largest crude oil and natural gas reserves in OPEC. UN sanctions halved Iraqi's GNP, which was $20bn for the year 1999. The U.N. described the Iraqi economy as pre-industrial - even the agricultural sector was severely smashed by the Gulf War.

Ancient history

Possibly the first civilization on Earth, Sumer, was cradled between the two life-giving yet potentially destructive rivers that are now part of Iraq. The land between the two rivers was known as Mesopotamia. It was settled by 6000 BC and civilization was flourishing by 3000 BC. Writing and mathematics originated in this civilization.

While the rivers allowed surplus food to be grown for the first time in history, they could also unleash devastating floods that could wipe out entire settlements.

In 634 AD Mesopotamia, at the time mostly Christian, was conquered by Arab Muslims and forced to pay tribute for not being Muslim. A few decades later it was conquered wholesale. Mesopotamia was forever established as an Islamic state.

The birth of modern Iraq

During World War I, the British invaded the middle-Eastern region of the Ottoman Empire when Turkey joined the war on the side of the Germans. By 1917 the British were in Baghdad, and they vowed to give the people of the present-day Iraq some of their freedom back from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled it.

The League of Nations made Iraq a British mandate, and jihad was called against the British (Muslims don't like being ruled by non-Muslims). For the first time ever Sunni and Shi'a co-operated to work towards the common goal of self-rule, and eventually the British established a monarchy.

The coming of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein is now the best-known and most-hated Arab leader. He was born in 1937 and joined the Ba'ath party at the age of twenty. The party, which now rules Iraq, was founded on the principles of hating the West and unity in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein rose to the head of the party and in 1979 he officially replaced President Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr, although he had been the power behind the throne for some years.

The Kurds

The Kurdish people have always opposed central government in Iraq and Iran, as what they really desire is the establishment of their own state. The Ba'ath Party perpetrated many atrocities against the Kurds, including poisons gas attacks, economic action and brutal occupation of Kurdish regions. After the Gulf War a Kurdish rebellion broke out, and the Kurdish Enclave was established. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to flee from the predominantly-Sunni central region through the mountains to the north.

The Iran-Iraq war

The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980 to 1988. The reasons for it starting were legion, but control of the Persian Gulf (Iraq's only coastline) was a critical factor. At first the Iranian military crumbled, and it seemed the war would be over in a matter of weeks - but only eight years and 1.3 million dead later was a cease-fire finally signed. The Iranian human wave tactics (often children) were shocking, and Iraq used chemical weapons possibly up to forty times against Iranian forces.

The Gulf War

Touted as a "success" for Iraq by Saddam, it was in fact a disaster on a grand scale. It all began when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, initiating an environmental disaster on a grand scale and destabilising the oil market. A coalition of seventeen countries smashed the Iraqi army in a matter of weeks. In an attempt to bolster support from the Arab world (of whom only Syria are a close ally as they are ruled by the Ba'ath Party), Iraq fired scud missiles at Israel, the Arab punchbag.

Following the Gulf War U.N. weapons inspectors were admitted into the country to inspect sites suspecting of producing weapons of mass destruction. They were kicked out in 1998 and punitive air strikes were launched by the United States and United Kingdom.

The present

11th August, 2002. War is again looming in Iraq. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and government-held evidence of Iraq supporting international terrorism and its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the United States is drawing up plans to invade the Arab state, possibly before the year is out.

The U.N. sanctions and no-fly zones to the south of Baghdad are not sufficient, say the U.S. administration. Although Saddam Hussein has offered to let U.N. weapons inspectors and even U.S. teams back into the country, it would be somewhat naive of the Western world to fall for this one again. Quoting U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld -

"The big thing that was there was the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) issue. And he had agreed, and the UN had agreed that they would - he would not have a WMD programme. We know he does have one. And he is continuing it,"

The U.S. government has set it at as a stated goal to remove the Hussein regime, but no official timetable has being set to do it.

Meanwhile, America's allies are faltering. Over 70% of the American population support the war on Iraq, but the European media is full of criticism on the War on Terrorism. The realities of the September 11 attacks are perhaps not as acutely clear to Europeans as they are to Americans, and falling European defence budgets (the United Kingdom being an exception, although its Chancellor Gordon Brown today announced that the United Kingdom could ill-afford a war) make most of Europe queasy at the thought of toppling Baghdad.

At the end of the day, it is almost inconceivable that America will not go through with the attack, whether her allies are with her or not. To paraphrase an article in today's Sunday Times, all that remains for Europe to decide is if it wants to be "an adult player in this new, dangerous world".