Republic of Iraq  

Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq became an independent kingdom in 1932. A "republic" was proclaimed in 1958, but in actuality a series of military strongmen have ruled the country since then, the latest being SADDAM Husayn.

Territorial disputes with Iran led to an inconclusive and costly eight-year war (1980-88). In August 1990 Iraq seized Kuwait, but was expelled by US-led, UN coalition forces during January-February 1991. The victors did not occupy Iraq, however, thus allowing the regime to stay in control. Following Kuwait's liberation, the UN Security Council (UNSC) required Iraq to scrap all weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles and to allow UN verification inspections. UN trade sanctions remain in effect due to incomplete Iraqi compliance with relevant UNSC resolutions.

Area - 437,072 sq km - 168,751 sq miles (about 8% larger than California)   Population - 24 Million

Iraq is an Arab republic in southwestern Asia which is slightly larger than California. The country is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the west by Syria and Jordan, to the south by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf, and to the east by Iran.

Ancient Mesopotamia, the "land between the waters," was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of Iraq. It is part of the "Fertile Crescent" and has been called by anthropologists as the "Cradle of Civilization," possibly the site of the Garden of Eden. One of the first civilizations of the world, Sumer, evolved here more than 5,000 years ago. The first Sumerians are believed to have been immigrants from the highlands of Turkey and Iran. As the area developed, migrations and invasions became more common and influenced the cultural make-up of the region. By the mid-24th century B.C., the Sumerians were overrun by the Akkadians and thus began the rising and falling of a long series of empires in the area. With the spread of iron new weapons of war were developed and the Kingdom of Ashur--or Assyrian, as it is usually called-from the northern part of this region began dominating its neighbors. After the Assyrians fell in the seventh century B.C. the Babylonians reestablished their empire in the region and they were followed by the Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Following the seventh century A.D., Islam became entrenched in what is now Iraq. Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (Islamic Empire), was the leading city of the world for five centuries and was the acknowledged leader of the Arab and Muslim world. In 1258 Baghdad was devastated by the Mongols and was later occupied by the Ottoman Turks. After World War I, the Turks were driven from the area by the British. Britain then created a mandate from three former Ottoman provinces and called this new country Al Iraq (the origin), the name formerly applied to only the southern region of the province of Basra. In 1932, Britain gave independence to this mandate and Iraq became a sovereign, independent state. However, Britain still maintained troops in Iraq and greatly influenced the government.

In 1933, Iraq's King Feisal died. His death coincided with political unrest and dissatisfaction with the government. In 1936, Iraq experienced its first attempted coup d'etat and between 1936 and 1941 there were six more abortive coup attempts. All of these attempted coups were motivated by personal goals rather than political issues. In January 1943, pro-British Iraq declared war on the World War II Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) under the terms of a treaty with Britain. In 1945 Iraq became a founding member of the League of Arab States. Postwar Iraq, however, did not regain the stature it enjoyed in the pre-World War II Arab world. After joining the United Nations (UN) in December 1945, Iraq bitterly opposed the UN partition of Palestine and in 1948 entered the war against Israel.

In 1958 King Faisal II of Iraq was executed in a coup by army officers. The leaders of the new regime declared their nation a republic committed to a foreign policy of nonalignment. Iraq's foreign policy, however, moved from a pro-West stance to one of friendly relations with the communist powers. Relations with the US were severed in 1967 after the US provided aid to Israel in the Six Day War.

The Iraqi Baath (Resurgence) Party came to power through a coup in 1968 and Saddam Hussein became the number two man in the regime. By 1976 Hussein had in reality become the power in the regime and in 1979 he took complete control. The Baath regime closely parallels those that have existed since the overthrow of King Feisal II in 1958. The Government is controlled by Sunni Arab military elements who have succeeded in avoiding commitments to a political union with other Arab states. Hussein's Baath Party dominates both military and civilian communities.

During the 1960s and 1970s Iraq had become increasingly more dependent on the former Soviet Union for military assistance. However, after the Soviets reneged on some military aid deals and provided inferior replacement equipment for war losses, the Iraqis began to improve relations with the West and decrease their dependence on the Soviets. During the late 1970s several border clashes with Iran increased tensions between the two countries. In 1979 Saddam Hussein expelled the Ayatollah Khomeini from Iraq, where he had been in exile since 1961. Removed from the seat of Shiite learning in Iraq, Khomeini vowed he would have Hussein's head brought to him on a platter. In February 1980 the Shah's caretaker's government fell and Khomeini returned to Iran via France vowing to spread the Islamic Revolution to the whole world. In September 1980, before Khomeini could consolidate his power, Iraq invaded Iran and the two countries were locked in war until September 1988, when a cease fire was agreed to, but no peace settlement has yet been achieved.

In August 1990 Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait. The United Nations passed 12 resolutions and urged Iraq to leave Kuwait by 15 January 1991, but to no avail. United States and multi-national forces were rushed into Saudi-Arabia in response to an urgent call from the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. On 16 January 1991 the Gulf War started with thousands of bombing raids in an effort to evict Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces from Kuwait. On 23 February 1991 the ground war started; it ended in a US and multi-national forces victory after 100 hours fighting by ground forces. Kuwait was liberated and fighting erupted between Iraqi troops and Shiite and Kurd rebels.

Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq for the past two decades, has the dubious distinction of being the world's best known and most hated Arab leader.   And in a region where despotic rule is the norm, he is more feared by his own people than any other head of state.

A former Iraqi diplomat living in exile summed up Saddam's rule in one sentence: "Saddam is a dictator who is ready to sacrifice his country, just so long as he can remain on his throne in Baghdad." Few Iraqis would disagree with this. Although none living in Iraq would dare to say so publicly.   The Iraqi people are forced to consume a daily diet of triumphalist slogans, fattened by fawning praise of the president.

He is portrayed as a valiant knight leading the Arabs into battle against the infidel, or as an eighth-century caliph who founded the city of Baghdad. Evoking the glory of Arab history, Saddam claims to be leading his people to new glory.

The reality looks very different. Iraq is bankrupt, its economy and infrastructure shattered by years of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations following the invasion of Kuwait.  Saddam Hussein remains largely isolated from his people, keeping the company of a diminishing circle of trusted advisers - largely drawn from his close family or from the extended clan based around the town of Takrit, north of Baghdad.

The path to power

The Iraqi president was born in a village just outside Takrit in April 1937. In his teenage years, he immersed himself in the anti-British and anti-Western atmosphere of the day. At college in Baghdad he joined the Baath party.

After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, Saddam connived in a plot to kill the prime minister, Abdel-Karim Qassem. But the conspiracy was discovered, and Saddam fled the country.   In 1963, with the Baath party in control in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein returned home and began jostling for a position of influence. During this period he married his cousin Sajida. They later had two sons and three daughters.

But within months, the Baath party had been overthrown and he was jailed, remaining there until the party returned to power in a coup in July 1968. Showing ruthless determination that was to become a hallmark of his leadership, Saddam Hussein gained a position on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.

For years he was the power behind the ailing figure of the president, Ahmed Hassan Bakr. In 1979, he achieved his ambition of becoming head of state. The new president started as he intended to go on - putting to death dozens of his rivals.

Holding together a disparate nation

President Saddam Hussein might defend his autocratic style of leadership by arguing that nothing else could have kept such a vast and diverse nation united.

And, for all that Saddam Hussein is criticised and reviled, his opponents have not been able to nominate anyone else who might hold Iraq together - with its Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslims in the centre and Shi'ia in the south. What the outside world calls terror, Saddam calls expediency.

Some years ago a European interviewer nervously quoted reports that the Baghdad authorities might, on occasions, have tortured and perhaps even killed opponents of the regime.

Was this true? Saddam Hussein was not offended. Rather, he seemed surprised by the naivete of the question. "Of course," he replied. "What do you expect if they oppose the regime?"

But his tactic of imposing his authority by terror has gone far beyond the occasional arrest and execution of opponents. In attempts to suppress the Kurds, for example, he has systematically used chemical weapons. And in putting down a rebellion of Shi'ia in the south he has razed towns to the ground and drained marshland.

Not that you would recognise the figure of a tyrant in the portraits that adorn every building and street corner in Iraq. Here you see Saddam, usually smiling benevolently, in a variety of guises and poses - in military uniform, say, or in traditional ethnic dress, or tweed cap and sports jacket; he might be surrounded by his family or be seen jiggling a young child on his knee - the would-be father-figure of the Iraqi nation.

A question of judgement

The fiction of Saddam Hussein as a benevolent ruler was exposed by two major and catastrophic miscalculations of foreign policy for which his country and his people have paid dearly.

In 1980, Saddam thought he saw an opportunity for glory - to put Iraq at the forefront of the Arab world. He ordered a surprise cross-border attack on Iran. This was meant to be a swift operation to capture the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Gulf.

But Iranian resistance was far stronger than he had imagined. Eight years later, with hundreds of thousands of young people killed and the country deep in debt, he agreed on a ceasefire. Still, with enormous oil reserves, Iraq seemed to have the potential to make a swift recovery. An increase in oil prices, Saddam Hussein surmised, would speed up the country's revival still more. Frustrated by his failure to achieve agreement on a price rise by conventional means, the Iraqi president allowed his long-harboured resentment against Kuwait to get the better of him. On 2 August 1990, he made another costly blunder by ordering his army into the neighbouring Gulf state.

Fighting qualities

In the months that led up to the war of 1991, Saddam Hussein displayed qualities that still make him both adored and hated in the Arab world.

On the streets of Arab cities he is admired as a leader who has dared to defy and challenge Israel and the West, a symbol of Arab steadfastness in the face of Western aggression. At the same time, Saddam is feared as a vicious dictator who threatens the security of the Gulf region as a whole.

With his older and favorite son Uday crippled in an assassination attempt, his younger son Qusay now controls the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Special Forces which guarantee the president's grip on power.

Gulf states and Western countries alike have come to realise that his grip is stronger than it seems - and stronger by far than his grasp of reality often appears to be.  He insists that the 1991 Gulf War, which he famously described as the Mother-of-All-Battles, ended in victory for Iraq. By the same token, Saddam boasts that Iraq can shrug off any Western military attack. The Iraqi people have no choice but to nod in agreement.

So it will go on until the moment comes for bombastic slogans to be replaced by a succinct epitaph to one of the most infamous dictators of the century. For the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, that moment can not come too soon.

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