Frontline World

IRAQ: The Road to Kirkuk, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Road to Kirkuk"

History without a homeland

The costs of war

Government, population, Iraqi Kurds

Kurds, nationalism, Iraq after Saddam




Images of Kurds, landscape, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Population
• Government
• Economy
• Iraqi Kurds

General Background

Iraq is approximately the size of California. It is bordered by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south, Syria and Jordan in the west, Turkey in the north, and Iran in the east. It also borders the Persian Gulf.

Iraq is known as the "cradle of civilization," where ancient cities such as Babylon and Ur flourished and fell along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. It is also said to be the possible 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, then 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 invasion in early 2003.

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There are 24 million Iraqis, three-quarters of whom are Arabs. Other ethnic groups include Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Yazidis and Armenians.

The population is 97 percent Muslim; two-thirds are Shiite, the remainder Sunni. Religious minorities include Christians, Jews and Mandaeans.

Years of war and repression have scattered large segments of the population. There are as many as 300,000 displaced people within Iraq and nearly 500,000 Iraqi refugees live in neighboring countries.

The literacy rate for Iraqi men is almost 71 percent; for women, it is 45 percent.

The average life expectancy for women is 63; for men, it is 59.

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During Saddam's 24-year rule, Iraq became a one-party authoritarian state, with power firmly held by Saddam and a close circle of his relatives and cronies. According to human rights groups, during Saddam's rule more than 16,000 people disappeared or remain unaccounted for.

The United States, a supporter of Saddam's regime in its early years, became its main international adversary following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Following September 11, 2001, the Bush administration named Iraq a member of "the axis of evil" and accused it of supporting terrorism and hiding chemical and biological weapons.

Iraq's government is currently controlled by the United States, which says it plans to guide Iraq toward secular democracy. In May 2003, the United Nations approved American and British control of Iraq. The United States has not said when it will turn over power to Iraqi authorities.

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Iraq's economy can be summed up in one word: oil. The country has vast natural wealth in the world's second-largest petroleum reserves, following Saudi Arabia. As much as 95 percent of Iraq's foreign exchange earnings come from oil.

Iraqis earn, on average, only $600 a year. The oil industry and the state have traditionally been the country's largest employers. Mass unemployment is currently a problem.

Following its defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations imposed tight economic sanctions on Iraq, limiting its exports and imports. In 1996, the sanctions were eased to allow Iraq to exchange "oil for food." Although this program was intended to raise the average Iraqi's standard of living, Saddam retained his grip on the nation's wealth.

The effects of decades of misrule, war and sanctions continue. Much of the country's infrastructure is damaged or outdated. Saddam's regime amassed more than $100 billion in debt during its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

In May 2003, the United Nations Security Council voted to end the sanctions and resume oil exports.

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Iraqi Kurds

An estimated 4 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 cities of Mosul, Irbil and Kirkuk.

Iraqi Kurds are part of the 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.

In 1988, Saddam launched a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, attacking Kurdish villages and towns with chemical gas and killing thousands.

Two rival parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), dominate Iraqi Kurdish politics. Though the United States has assumed nominal control over Iraqi Kurdistan, the area is currently split between the two parties, with the KDP dominant in the north and the PUK in the south.

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BBC News; CIA World Factbook 2002; The Economist; United Nations News Centre; U.S. State Department; World Health Organization.