|Iraq. Iraq was once the seat of the great pre-Islamic, Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria, one of the oldest on record (c. 3000 B.C.E.). The area was successively overrun by ancient Persians and Greeks and then Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam. During the first centuries of the Islamic era, Baghdad was home to the Abbasid caliphs, to great universities (madrasa), and a florescence of ancient science and learning. After a prolonged decline under the Mongols, it became a province of the Ottoman Empire, known as Mesopotamia, from 1638 to 1918. Iraq was included in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, leading in 1920 to its becoming a British mandate. In 1930 it gained independence as an Arab kingdom under the Hashemite, Faisal I. |
Modern Iraq is a polyglot country, with a large Kurd minority in the north (in rebellion 1922–1932, 1961–1979, 1991–) and a sizeable “marsh Arab,” shi’ite minority in the south. Oil was discovered in 1927. In 1941 a pro-Nazi coup was foiled by British intervention. Iraq then entered the war against the Axis in 1943. The British Army stayed in place until 1947. Faisal II tried to associate Iraq with Jordan, but was killed in a coup, led by Kassem, which established Iraq as a republic in 1958. In 1963 another coup killed Kassem and instituted Ba’ath Party rule. A third coup, in July 1968, established a brutal military dictatorship. Saddam Hussein emerged from the background to assume the presidency in 1979. In 1980 he attacked Iran, beginning the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). At home he established a crude cult of personality, repressed all dissent, conducted genocide against the Kurds, hanged a shi’ite ayatollah and members of his family, and generally indulged in torture and summary execution to a degree that revealed a sadistic passion for both. On June 7, 1981, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor outside Baghdad, setting back by a decade the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Peace with Iran came in 1988, but not demilitarization: by 1990 Iraq could put in the field an army numbering close to one million troops, though its quality was uncertain.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which Hussein later annexed as “Province 19.” That naked aggression provoked the Gulf War, in which Iraq’s military was at least reduced from a threat to its neighbors to primarily a threat to its citizens. The UN embargoed Iraq, pending full compliance with the cease-fire resolutions passed by the Security Council, especially those pledging to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions hurt severely and made it difficult to complete civilian reconstruction even while they had the desired effect of hamstringing the military. Iraq’s Kurds sheltered under a coalition-enforced no-fly zone, as did the shi’ites of the south. Iraq continually placed obstacles in the way of UN inspection teams, leading several times to coalition punishment raids. In June 1993, the United States unilaterally fired cruise missiles at Iraq’s intelligence headquarters in retaliation for an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H. Bush. In December 1993, Iraq agreed to long-term UN monitoring of its weapons programs, bringing it into technical compliance with the cease-fire resolutions. It was so little trusted that the embargo remained in place, despite objections from some that it was unduly punishing Iraqi civilians. In 1994 Iraq finally recognized Kuwait’s sovereignty, even as its defiance of sanctions and weapons inspection visits continued. After 1998 Iraq ceased to cooperate with UN weapons inspections. By 2000 international support for sanctions had been seriously eroded, with only Britain and the United States still willing to enforce them, along with the UN no-fly zones.