Country Profile: Iraq
Modern Iraq lies in the center of what has been called the Cradle of Civilization, or Mesopotamia. The fertile Tigris and Euphrates river valleys nurtured some of the first civilizations here, as long ago as 8,000 years. By 3000 b.c., the Sumerians, in the region known as the Fertile Crescent, had invented the wheel, developed the first written alphabet and produced sophisticated bodies of law, philosophy and literature. By the seventh century, Islam dominated the region, and Baghdad was the capital of a vast Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco to the Indian subcontinent. The city flourished for five centuries, until Mongol invasions weakened its influence in the 13th century. The Ottoman Turks then ruled the region, largely as a remote outpost. They ceded control to Britain after World War I, when the modern borders of the country were mapped. Britain occupied the country until 1932, then handed power to an independent monarchy. The republic that replaced the monarchy was run by a series of military strongmen, Saddam Hussein and his Arab Nationalist Baath Party being the most recent.
Largely desert, only 13 percent of Iraqs land is arable. The country is approximately the size of California, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Anti-Taurus Mountains. It has drawn attention for its strategic location in the Persian Gulf. 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.
Iraq is home to more than 26 million people, three-quarters of whom are Arab. Ethnic minorities 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.
Iraq contains the worlds second-largest petroleum reserves, following Saudi Arabia. Its economy and politics have been dominated by these rich reserves of oil.
Though the current insurgency overshadows all other problems, beneath the violence the effects of decades of corrupt rule, war and sanctions have left their own devastating mark on the countrys infrastructure and society. In 1991, the United Nations said Iraq had been reduced to a pre-industrial state. Years of war and repression scattered large segments of the population. There are as many as 300,000 displaced people within Iraq and hundreds of thousands of refugees outside the country.
Government water-control projects have drained most of the marsh areas east of an-Nasiriyah, displacing a once-sizable population of Marsh Arabs, who had inhabited the areas for thousands of years. Increased salinity and erosion of soil have led to more desertification. The country is plagued by inadequate supplies of potable water and intense sandstorms.Back to top
Back to top
Saddam was born in 1937 in the village of al-Awja, northwest of Baghdad. His story contributes to his almost mythic stature. His parents were poor farmers, and his father died or left when Saddam was very young. As the story goes, his stepfather was an abusive thief who forced Saddam to steal chickens and sheep.
When he was 10, Saddam moved to Baghdad to live with his uncle, an Iraqi army officer and fierce Arab nationalist. Perhaps inspired by his uncle, Saddams interest in politics grew throughout his teenage years. Saddam studied at the Cairo University School of Law before he returned to Baghdad. As the Baath Party rose to power in the 1960s, he became deeply involved in politics.
From 1969 to 1979, Saddam was the vice president of Iraq. He supported the building of schools, hospitals, roads and public housing. He nationalized the oil industry and created one of the best public-health systems in the Middle East. He instituted a radical but effective literacy project that helped hundreds of thousands of illiterate Iraqis learn to read. UNESCO even gave him an award. But he also started filling government posts with family members and gaining control over the countrys oil. The West mostly overlooked his draconian methods, simply nodding to Iraqs successes. Saddam was seen as the best hope for secular modernization in the region.
By 1979, Iraq had become rich on its oil, with 95 percent of its foreign exchange earnings coming from petroleum.
Saddam became president in 1979. He quickly ordered the deaths of any officials suspected of treason, built lavish palaces, and concentrated the wealth and power among a close circle of relatives and cronies. He violently stifled any opposition and oversaw massive genocidal campaigns, for which he is now on trial.
In 1980, the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war began, spurred both by territorial disputes and the influence of Irans recent Islamic Revolution, which was stirring up Shiiah Muslims in Iraq. Saddam wanted to squelch this growing revolution.
By 1987, Saddams army was the fourth largest in the world. He had a nuclear weapons program under way, deadly chemical and biological weapons in development, and an arsenal of Scud missiles. It was during this time that Saddam carried out some of his most brutal campaigns in Iraq, including the Anfal campaign against Kurds, the gassing of Kurds in Halabja and the massacre of members of the Kurdish Barzani tribe.
The United States turned its military attention on Iraq after Saddam marched his army into the small oil-rich country of Kuwait in 1991. After only six weeks, Iraq was defeated in the U.S.-led Gulf War, and the U.N. Security Council required Iraq to drop its development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range missiles and to allow U.N. inspectors to verify compliance with these demands.
By early 1992, it became apparent that Iraq still possessed many weapons, and intense international pressure to eliminate them resulted in U.N. economic sanctions, which severely limited Iraqs exports and imports.
After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration named Iraq a member of the axis of evil. The administration accused it of supporting terrorism and continuing to hide chemical and biological weapons.
In the early hours of March 20, 2003, American missiles hit targets in Baghdad, signaling the beginning of an offensive to remove Saddam from power.
U.S. and British ground forces advanced from the south, and by April 9, 2003, U.S. forces had reached Baghdad, toppled Saddams statue and sent his regime into hiding. Eight months later, a bedraggled Saddam was pulled out of a hole near Tikrit.
Ladies and gentlemen, we got him. The tyrant is a prisoner, Paul Bremer, the chief civilian administrator in Iraq at the time, told reporters.
The primary justification for the war was Saddams alleged possession of WMD and his lack of cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors, though subsequent inspections found that Iraq had no stockpiles of WMD.
The Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government in June 2004. Iraqis voted in January 2005 to elect a 275-member Transitional National Assembly that then drafted a permanent constitution based on civil and Islamic law. The latest elections, held in December 2005, are being hailed by the United States as a definitive marker of success on the road to an independent, democratic Iraq.
The U.S.-led coalition forces that ousted Saddam in 2003 continue to face a violent insurgency in Iraq, primarily led by Sunni Arabs. The insurgency has targeted not just the coalition forces, but also civilians, Iraqi security forces and international agencies. More than 2,000 coalition troops and thousands more civilians have been killed since the start of the military action. Western forces remain indefinitely in Iraq, with the daunting tasks of restoring civil order, reconstructing the countrys infrastructure and overseeing a solid political transition.
Saddams trial before the Iraqi special tribunal began in Baghdads Green Zone on October 19, 2005. He pleaded not guilty to charges of ordering the killing of 148 Shiiahs in the village of Dujail in 1982 and has defiantly questioned the courts validity throughout the proceedings. I preserve my constitutional rights as the president of Iraq. I do not recognize the body that has authorized you, and I dont recognize this aggression, Saddam is reported to have said during a verbal sparring session between the defense and the judge.
Many witnesses testified anonymously behind closed curtains, relaying scenes of torture, arrests and killings in Dujail. Saddam accused many of lying and levied his own dramatic complaints about being abused while in prison.
Some Iraqis are discouraged that Dujail was chosen as the first charge against Saddam to be heard before the Iraqi special tribunal. Critics say this incident, while horrific, pales next to the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja and the massacre of the Barzanis.Back to top
The Iraqi Kurds
The Kurds are an ethnic group in Iraq of some 5 million people. Iraqs Kurdish population is concentrated in the northern part of the country in an area known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The region contains rich oil and gas fields around the cities of Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk. The Kurds living in Iraq 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.
They have often been called the worlds largest stateless nation. Iraqi Kurds have long struggled with Baghdad for greater self-rule over their mountainous and oil-rich homeland. During the 1970s, the Baath Party embarked on a program to Arabize the Kurdish oil-producing regions. They deported Kurds and brought in poor Arabs to control the oil fields. They also forcibly evacuated as many as 250,000 people from the border areas near Iran and Turkey.
In 1988, Saddam launched a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, attacking 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.Back to top
Iraq Media and Bloggers
The Iraqi media, like much Arab media, is largely state-owned. In recent years, calls for greater privatization -- both from inside and outside the Middle East -- have been getting louder. There are more than 200 satellite TV channels, but only a handful are dedicated to independent news reporting and analysis, and many are still young outlets struggling to establish themselves among world news organizations.
Although keeping up with technology and reporting styles is a big challenge in itself, many journalists in the Middle East face much more serious challenges. For the last three years, Iraq has been the worlds most dangerous country for the media, as journalists face the combined threats of censorship from local governments and violence from angry insurgents.
In addition, some reporters fear that publishing critical material could jeopardize their access to government and business officials. But Hassan Fattah, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, argued at the Arab and World Media Conference in December 2005 that this kind of self-censoring is a threat to the future of media. Some journalists feel that instead of recoiling in fear when a reporter is murdered in the Arab world, today the appropriate response is outrage and a renewed commitment to media independence, he said.
The rise of blogging worldwide over the past several years has brought an increase in the number of Iraqi voices that are influencing the news coming out of the Middle East. In their coverage, Western media outlets are increasingly using quotes from or even featured interviews with Iraqi bloggers.Back to top
Media Coverage of the Middle East
This Special In-Depth section of the BBC News site provides analysis of the war in Iraq. In the Living in Iraq section, graphs illustrate the reconstruction issues in post-Saddam Iraq, including pie charts of electric power and water supply problems by region and maps showing insurgency strongholds by city. The Counting the Dead section maps police and civilian deaths by region. Saddam in Pictures documents Saddams rise to power over six decades, culminating in the image of his mouth examination after his capture in December 2003.
The Asia Times Online has a section dedicated to the Middle East, with regular coverage of Iraq. Based in Hong Kong, it is the successor of Asia Times, a daily print newspaper founded in 1995. Most of the contributing correspondents are Asian journalists, and the journal aims to balance Western-dominated perspectives found in the English-language coverage of Asia. The journal has 50 correspondents and contributors in 17 countries. Material from academics, think-tank and investment analysts, and news services can be found here.
Radio Sawa sawa is an Arabic word that means together) is the U.S. governments radio broadcast in the Middle East. Founded in 2002, it broadcasts from stations in Washington, D.C., and Dubai. It specifically targets youth, with plenty of pop music, enthusiastic hosts and modern messages.
This Washington Post article from 2004 explores the question of whether Radio Sawa has been worth the $22 million in federal dollars spent annually on its broadcast. A State Department inspector generals draft report stated that it has focused on building an audience through its music, but had failed in its mission to influence listeners with Western ideals of democracy and pro-American sentiments. Two independent panels of Arab-language experts hired by the inspector generals office gave the programming a mixed review, saying that it did not match al-Jazeera in terms of quality and that parents would prefer that their teenagers not listen to Radio Sawa because its broadcasts contained such poor Arabic grammar.
Alhurra (alhurra is an Arabic word that means the free one) is the U.S. government-run satellite TV station that broadcasts in the Middle East. Alhurra, like Radio Sawa, is operated by a nonprofit corporation, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks Inc. (MBN). MBN is financed through the U.S. Congress. The station features entertainment and lifestyle programming, such as Hollywood Remembers, a show featuring biographies of Hollywood film legends and classic film clips; Body and Soul, a lifestyle program that covers health issues such as stress and old age; and Shop the World, which travels from Paris boutiques to Japanese shopping malls.
This is the English-language Web site for the Arab television network, which was founded in 1996. Al-Jazeera, which broadcasts out of Qatar, has 30 bureaus and dozens of correspondents around the world. Coverage of Saddams trial and the war on Iraq as well as general global news coverage can be found on this site. In the sites Special Report section, Iraq Under Occupation subsection, visitors will find lists of statistics comparing conditions before and after the U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq. Comparisons include the number of hospital beds, student enrollment, caloric intake and infant mortality. The site also contains a timeline chronicling the first 21 days of the U.S.-led offensive, maps of Iraqs oil fields and colorful descriptions of U.S. and Iraqi key players.
Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, American journalist Rick Zednik visits al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The article also addresses criticism of bias levied against al-Jazeera from both the United States and the Arab world. Zednik reports that for every attack from the Bush administration, there is another from the Arab world. The station repeatedly loses ad campaigns over its divisive coverage.
PBSs NOW takes a look at al-Jazeera, which has been criticized in the Arab world for its condemnation of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as well as panned by Western leaders -- Bush referred to al-Jazeera as hateful propaganda, and Rumsfeld criticized it for being a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda. This page provides links to David Broncaccios interview with Control Room director Jehane Noujaim, and the PBS Web site looks at the history of propaganda.
This site offers a free two-week trial subscription to the first national English-language newspaper of the post-Saddam era, distributed in the main cities of Iraq and Jordan and headquartered in Baghdad, with another bureau in Basra. The newspaper was founded by Hussain Sinjari, the proprietor of the al-Ahali media group. All the journalists are Iraqis. The publishers state that a priority of the newspaper is to assist in the reconstruction of the country.
This pooled news service was launched by Reuters Foundation and the U.N. Development Programme. It features daily news items from several newspapers in Iraq. It is available in three languages, English, Arabic and Kurdish.
This site provides links to articles about the Iraqi press, lists of online news sources and documents such as Paul Bremers written order limiting media activity in Iraq.
This nonprofit organization identifies attacks against the press in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The CPJ lists 47 journalists who have been killed in 2005 and compiles the circumstances of their deaths online. Announcements about the latest attacks are posted here.
IMN is another U.S.-funded news and entertainment venture that consists of the television network al-Iraqiya, the newspaper al-Sabah and a radio network. Billed as an Iraqi BBC, IMN promises Iraqis comprehensive, accurate, fair and balanced news and says it will instill a code of ethics in Iraqi journalists. News is culled from the BBC and Reuters and contributed by the IMN staff. News reports that IMN has credibility issues and is too closely associated with the Coalition Provisional Authority began to appear in the fall of 2003.Back to top
Media Coverage of Saddam Husseins Trial
This is the official site for the legal body now responsible for Saddams trial. The complete statute guiding the tribunal can be found here. It explains the rules of procedure and evidence, the trial proceedings, and the list of crimes before the tribunal, including crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The names of Saddams defense counsel are also listed here.
Case Western law professor Michael Scharfs resource-rich trial blog invites a variety of voices to debate the legal developments in the trial and to offer perspective on the tribunal's significance to other war crimes proceedings in history.
This Q&A from the BBC provides an overview of Saddams trial. It explains how, where and for what Saddam is being tried; international concerns about the Iraqi special tribunal; and possible defense strategies.
This July 2004 BBC report covers Saddams first appearance in court, during which the initial charges were levied against him. The BBC reported that this trial was a historical moment -- the first time an Arab ruler had appeared before a judge to face charges related to abuse of power and oppression.
This BBC report from June 2005 covers the decision to launch Saddams trial by examining the murders of Shiiah men in Dujail rather than of the Kurds in Halabja or the Shiiah in Basra. The BBC reports that the Dujail episode had symbolic and political value for Iraqs new government -- many of those involved in the assassination attempt had ties to the Daawa Party, the Shiiah group to which Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari belongs.
This Christian Science Monitor report on the eve of Saddams trial in October 2005 covers the funeral held for the 512 victims whose remains were found by Kurdish human rights minister Mohammed Ihsan.
Coverage from some of the more memorable moments of Saddams trial in December 2005 is found here. This article reports that Saddam repeatedly interrupted testimony and defended his crackdown on Dujail as retribution for an attempt on his life.Back to top
Media Coverage of the Kurds
This Kurdish-run news site is dedicated to fostering an independent international identity for Kurdistan. It contains interviews with Kurdish politicians and activists and daily news from Iraq. A review of Gwynne Roberts film Saddams Legacy can be read on this page of the site: Documentary Film Saddams Legacy Brings to Light New Evidence.
In this January 2006 feature for National Geographic, photographer Ed Kashi narrates a slide show of his images from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Photographs of chemical disfigurement, an intimate birthday party, Kirkuk city streets and Kurdish armed forces training in the mountains of northern Iraq give a visual reference for understanding the Kurdish situation. You can also link to the full National Geographic article on the Kurds, watch a video about the Kurdish peshmerga -- Iraqs largest military group -- and view maps of the Kurdish area of Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Governments official Web site has overviews of Iraqi Kurdistans history and administrative structure, daily news reports, and opinion pieces. Legal documents such as the draft Iraqi constitution and the election results by region are compiled here as well as photographs of Kurdish scenery, politics and military trainings.
This Human Rights Watch report details the genocide carried out in northern Iraq between 1980 and 1988. For a year and a half, researchers analyzed several tons of government documents and interviewed several hundred survivors and eyewitnesses of the campaign. They found that at least 50,000 Kurds had been murdered or had disappeared and that 4,000 villages had been destroyed.
Learn more about Iraqi Kurdistan on this site through multimedia shows on Kurdish economic development and the regions relationship with the West. Regular updates on the region are listed, and visitors can link to the Kurdistan Development Corporation, the official investment site for Iraqi Kurdistan.Back to top
Bruce Chapman of The Wall Street Journal takes a look at Iraqi blogs in this October 2004 article from the papers Opinion Journal. He discusses how bloggers often scoop the mainstream media and correct media reports, such as the time the Los Angeles Times reported that Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer fled abruptly, afraid to look in the eye the people he had ruled for more than a year. The blog, Iraq the Model, sharply corrected the report and delivered details of Bremers television address that publicly marked his departure.
San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center has posted links to blogs from Iraqis in Iraq. On Baghdad Burning, a blogger discusses the abduction of Jill Carroll, a journalist from The Christian Science Monitor, and the death of Carrolls translator, a friend of the blogger. On Treasure of Baghdad, a blogger discusses her fears over new neighbors who look like insurgents and the paranoia that is seeping into everyones life in Iraq. Many blogs are filled with details on daily life in Iraq -- the lack of electricity, the rising price of produce -- and personal responses to current events.
American David K. James hosts a list of links to Iraq-based blogs. On Stryker Brigade News, friends and family of the armys Stryker Brigade Combat team report on life on the ground in Iraq. Jason Van Steenwyk, the Nattering Nabob of Nebuchadnezzar, posts on Iraq Now.
An excerpt entitled Why Iraq Blogs Matter accompanies this list of Iraq bloggers. A blogger named Zeyed writes from Iraq, I have always been concerned about our voice not reaching the rest of the world. Sadly, a very large majority in the West still see us as people living in tents, dressed with turbans and robes, riding camels, and cursing the infidel West our voice will be heard at last.
This blog is compiled by Faiza al-Arji and her three sons. The family archived their war diaries on the blog, providing an intimate perspective on the war. There are also links to Arabic language lessons from the mother and to the U.S.-based son Raeds own blog, Raed in the Middle, where he laments his host countrys drive to war. Faizas musings on the Dujail trial and Decembers vote can be found here, translated into English.Back to top
Republic of Fear
By Samir al-Khalil (aka Kanan Makiya), 1989
This book analyzes the Baath regime in Iraq. It looks at its obsessive fabrication of enemies, gives a historical context for understanding its rise to power and explains how the regime gained political authority based on fear.
The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions
By Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf, 2003
This unusual book is a compilation of essays and documents by everyone from George Bush and Saddam Hussein to Seymour Hersh and Susan Sontag. It gives a broad context for understanding the present situation in Iraq.
A Modern History of the Kurds
By David McDowall, 2004
In his research for this book, David McDowall, a British specialist on Middle Eastern affairs, relied extensively on primary sources, including those in Arabic, Turkish and various languages spoken by the Kurds. He gives considerable coverage to the period of 1918 to 1925, when the Kurds lost their one main opportunity for autonomy after the demise of the Ottoman and Qajar empires.
Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein
By Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, 1999
Journalists and brothers Andrew and Patrick Cockburn offer a probing look at Iraq under Saddam and the complex relations between the regime and the United States. The brothers make a strong case against the United States and the United Nations for their failure to oust Saddam when they had the chance after the 1991 Gulf War.Back to top
Additional Resources compiled by Singeli Agnew, Joelle Jaffe and Jackie Bennion.
Sources: BBC News; CIA World Factbook 2002; The Economist; U.N. News Center; U.S. State Department; World Health Organization; Inter Press Service News Agency; CBC News Online.