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
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
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
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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
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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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
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.