Iraq, a country about the size of California, is home to 24 million people, three-quarters of whom are Arabs. The population is 97 percent Muslim. The country is known as the "cradle of civilization," where ancient cities such as Babylon and Ur flourished along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The country is also said to be the site of the Garden of Eden.
Iraq's modern borders were drawn after the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire ceded control of the country to Britain. Britain occupied the country until 1932, when it handed over power to a monarchy. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and a republic was proclaimed, although in reality the country was run by a series of military strongmen culminating in the late 1960s when the Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party came to power. By 1979, Saddam Hussein had risen through its ranks to become president. Hussein was overthrown during a U.S. and British-led invasion in early 2003.
An estimated four million Kurds live in Iraq, making them the country's largest ethnic minority. Iraq's Kurdish population is concentrated in the northern part of the country. Iraqi Kurdistan, as this area is known, contains rich oil fields and the main cities of Mosul, Irbil and Kirkuk.
Iraqi Kurds are part of some 25 million Kurds who live in an area that spreads across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Kurds have their own language and culture and a strong sense of national identity, which have often put them at odds with the regions' governments. Many Kurds still feel strongly that Kurdistan should be an independent nation.
Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program in the late 1980s drove tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arabs out of Kirkuk, to be replaced with pro-government Arabs from southern Iraq.
Kirkuk, the center of Iraq's oil industry, has long been known as an ethnically mixed city where Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arabs, and Armenians lived together in peace. Now, as security deteriorates and sectarian violence escalates, tensions over land claims as non-Arabs return home have become severe and violent, and dozens of people have been killed in recent months over land.
Despite the existence of a commission to manage land claims, thousands are still unresolved. As of April 2006, the commission reported that while nearly 133,000 claims have been registered, fewer than 22,000 had been settled. Under current federal law, Kirkuk lands should return to the original owners and the Arabs who built there should receive compensation.
Iraq's Oil Economy
Iraq's economy is in deep trouble. Corruption is rampant, and a recent United Nations audit found that hundreds of millions of dollars of last year's oil revenues had either been miscounted or were completely missing. State-owned industries have been inefficient, and what money is floating around from the oil industry hasn't trickled down to ordinary Iraqis. Iraq's finance minister, Ali Allawi, estimates that about half of all profits from oil smuggling are used to fund the insurgency.
While the economy was weak before the U.S. and allied forces occupation, it has gotten even worse. Since 2003, inflation has soared, and Iraqis lives have further deteriorated because of bombings and sectarian killings.
Black market oil prices keep going up, and some Iraqis can't even afford to get to work anymore. The country's central bank chief told Reuters that the root of the problem is the dire security situation. In order to restore security, the country will need solid economic policies to create jobs, raise living standards, and ease poverty.
Over the past couple of years, violence by insurgents has stunted oil production, with gunmen staging abductions, and attackers using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns in broad daylight. Iraq has a new oil production protection force, but insurgents have infiltrated it with a Mafia-like presence. Once considered the country's economic salvation, Iraq's oil sector has seen serious decline since the fall of Saddam.
SOURCE: BBC News, CIA Factbook, Newsweek, Reuters, United Nations
From Our Archives
The U.S.-Kurdish Relationship
The United States has had a long and at times uneasy relationship with the Kurds. After World War I, it promised to support an independent Kurdish state and during the 1970s it supported -- then abandoned -- Kurdish rebels inside Iraq. FRONTLINE presents a timeline of the main events in 20th-century U.S.-Kurdish history.
The Road to Kirkuk
In February 2003, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sam Kiley went to Iraq to cover a war that everyone knew was coming. He was reporting from the northern front, an area controlled by the Kurds since the first Gulf War. In the weeks Kiley spent in Kurdistan, he would discover a land and a people haunted by Saddam Hussein
Return to Kirkuk
This is Karzan Sherabayani's original story for FRONTLINE/World. At 19, Sherabayani escaped from Iraq, where he had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein's secret police. In this report, filmed in January 2005, he returns to his hometown, Kirkuk, to vote in the first national elections since the overthrow of Saddam's regime. Swiss producer Claudio von Planta went with him to film the story, which first aired on the BBC.
The Kurds Story
In the FRONTLINE report, "The Survival of Saddam," producer Greg Barker interviewed key Kurdish leaders and senior American officials who discuss the long, bitter relationship between the U.S. and the Kurds of northern Iraq.
Saddam's Road to Hell
In this January 2006 FRONTLINE/World broadcast, veteran filmmaker Gwynne Roberts and a team of investigators set off on a dangerous journey across Iraq to find out what exactly happened to 8,000 Kurdish men and boys who went missing in the early years of Saddam's rule.
American Kurdish Information Network
AKIN, a Washington-based Kurdish advocacy group, promotes awareness of the Kurds and their struggle for independence. Its Web site includes commentary on current Kurdish issues and graphic images of atrocities committed against Kurds in Iraq and Turkey.
Kurdistan Democratic Party
The KDP, founded by Mustafa Barzani in 1946, is one of Iraq's dominant Kurdish nationalist groups. Barzani's son Masoud currently heads the organization. Since 1992, the KDP has shared power and occasionally fought with other Kurdish parties, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
The PUK is Iraq's other main Kurdish nationalist group, headed since 1975 by Jalal Talabani, who is now president of Iraq. As its official site explains, "The organization's aim is to revitalize resistance and to rebuild and redirect Kurdish society along modern and democratic lines."
Kurds in Iraq
This BBC chronology starts with the post-World War I British occupation of Mosul and continues through latest events in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Kirkuk: Iraq's incendiary city"
This BBC article explains why Kirkuk is so important in terms of politics, culture and history.
The Anfal Campaign
Anfal, which is Arabic for "spoils," was the name of Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s. This report by Human Rights Watch gives a detailed account of the campaign's atrocities throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.
In her book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, American photographer Susan Meiselas explores the modern history of the Kurds through photographs, pictures and writings. With no central archive for Kurdish historical documents, the book was the first time many of these materials had been made public. This companion Web site includes images from the book and a page where visitors may submit their own pictures and writings about Kurdistan.
The most infamous aspect of Anfal was the Iraqi military's use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. The mastermind of this strategy was Ali Hassan al-Majid, a Ba'ath Party leader now known as "Chemical Ali." In these transcripts of taped conversations with Ali, he openly describes the brutal tactics used against the Kurds.
Kurdistan Regional Government
From its capital in Irbil, the Kurdistan Regional Government controls the "liberated area of Iraqi Kurdistan." Its official Web site features news stories about the reconstruction of Iraq and information on the KRG's decade-long efforts to set up an alternative government in northern Iraq.
Kurdish Media, a British-based Web site, presents an extensive array of stories on Kurdish news and culture.
The British newspaper The Guardian maintains a Web site with comprehensive links to recent stories about Kurds in Iraq and Turkey.