Iraq lies in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia were established. Ancient cities such as Nineveh, Ur, and Babylon were located here.
Iraq is mainly desert, but near the two major rivers (Euphrates and Tigris) are fertile alluvial plains (an alluvial plain is a mostly flat landform created by sediment deposits from one ore more rivers).
Most of Iraq has a hot arid climate. Rainfall during the summer is extremely rare, except in the far north of the country. The northern mountainous regions have cold winters with occasional heavy snows, sometimes causing extensive flooding.
Present-day Iraq and Kuwait were established out of the British Mandate territory gained following Britain’s defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Britain established straight-line political boundaries between Iraq and Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. These types of boundaries are called geometric boundaries because they do not follow any physical features. In 1961, when Britain withdrew from the region, the emir controlling the southern region bordering the Persian Gulf requested that Britain separate his oil-rich kingdom as an independent country. This country became Kuwait, and the rest of the region became Iraq. After a series of governments in Iraq, the Baath party came to power in 1968, paving the way for Saddam Hussein to gain power in 1979.
Iran-Iraq War (1980–88)
In 1980, a disagreement arose over the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the Persian Gulf on the border between Iraq and Iran, and the feud led to war between the two countries. The people of Iran are not Arabs; their ethnic background is Persian. Most Iranians are Shia Muslims. Saddam Hussein and his Baath party were Arabs and Sunni Muslims. Ethnic and religious differences thus fueled the conflict. The Shatt al-Arab waterway was quickly filled with wrecked ships. The local battle escalated into an all-out war, which ended in 1988 without anyone declaring a victory. The Iran-Iraq War was as close to World War III as the world has ever seen, with more than a million casualties and a cost of more than one hundred billion dollars. World powers aligned themselves with one side or the other. Before the war, the Iranian government had been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists who opposed the US intervention in the region; therefore, in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States supported Hussein and provided him with industrial supplies and materials.
The Persian Gulf War (1990–91)
After the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein looked to Kuwait to gain new oil wealth and expand access to the Persian Gulf. By taking over Kuwait, Iraq would gain an excellent port on the Persian Gulf and earn more income from oil reserves. Hussein accused Kuwait of slant drilling oil wells along the Iraqi border and removing oil that was legally Iraq’s. It was common knowledge that both sides were engaged in this practice, but it was the excuse Hussein needed to invade Kuwait and reclaim it as the nineteenth province of Iraq.
In 1990, the Iraqi military invaded and occupied Kuwait. Though the world community opposed this action, it was not until Hussein nationalized all the oil assets of the international oil corporations that resistance was organized. Under the leadership of US president George H. W. Bush, the United Nations (UN) organized a military coalition to remove Hussein from Kuwait. On January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began. After forty-five days of fighting, Iraq was overwhelmingly defeated and its military was ousted from Kuwait. This was a major victory for the coalition.
When it became evident that Hussein would lose Kuwait, his forces dynamited all the oil facilities and set all the oil wells in Kuwait on fire. His position was that if he could not have the oil, then nobody would. This was one of the worst environmental catastrophes regarding oil on record. Oil flowed into the Persian Gulf and covered the water’s surface up to three feet thick. Most mammals, birds, and organisms living on the water’s surface died. Oil flowed out onto the desert sand into large petroleum lakes. The air pollution caused by burning oil wells dimmed the sun and caused serious health problems.
Ethnic and Cultural Divisions
To keep Iraq from breaking apart after Operation Desert Storm, coalition forces allowed Hussein to remain in power. Ethnically and religiously, Iraq is divided into three primary groups that generally do not get along. Sunni Arabs dominate central Iraq in a region often referred to as the Sunni Triangle, which includes the three cities of Baghdad, Tikrit (Hussein’s hometown), and Ramadi.
Sunnis were the most loyal to the Hussein government. Southeastern Iraq is dominated by Arabs who follow the Shia division of Islam, which is also followed by most of Iran’s population. A group that is ethnically Kurdish and follows the Sunni division dominates northern Iraq. Kurds are not Arabs or Persians; rather, they originated from somewhere in northern Europe centuries ago with their own religion, language, and customs. Many have converted to Islam.
Hussein was a Sunni Muslim, and when he was in power, he kept the other two groups in check. He used chemical weapons on the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1988, he used chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja and killed about 10 percent of the eighty thousand who lived there. Thousands of Kurds died in other attacks, and thousands more continue to suffer serious health effects. After Operation Desert Storm, Hussein pushed the Kurds north until the UN and the United States restricted him at the thirty-sixth parallel, which became a security zone for the Kurds. The Arab Shia population in the south often clashed with Hussein’s military in an attempt to gain more political power, and Hussein subjected them to similar harsh conditions and treatment.
The Arab Shia population in the southeast makes up most of the Iraqi people. The two main cities of Karbala and Najaf contain holy sites for Shia followers worldwide.
The Shia population is three times larger than the Kurdish population in Iraq; more Kurds live outside Iraq than live in Iraq.
The Kurds are the largest nation of people in the world without a country. About twenty-five million Kurds live in the Middle East, and most—about fourteen million—live in Turkey. About eight million Kurds live in Iran, about seven million live in Iraq, and a few others live in neighboring countries.
At the 1945 conference of the UN, they petitioned to have their own country called Kurdistan carved out of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, but they were denied.
The Iraq War (2003–11)
After the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, there was a renewed interest in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Knowing that Hussein had used chemical weapons on the Kurds, the Iranians, and the Shia, there was a concern that he would use them again. UN Weapons inspectors in Iraq never could confirm that Hussein retained WMD. They had been destroyed, moved out of Iraq, or hidden. US president George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 to remove Hussein from power.
In the invasion, Hussein’s two sons were killed and Hussein was captured. One aspect of the invasion plan was to use Iraq’s vast oil reserves to help pay for the cost of the war, which quickly ballooned to more than a billion dollars a week. Fundamentalist Islamic insurgents made the war difficult.
The US invasion of Iraq brought about the removal of the Baath Party from power and Iraq came under a military occupation by a multinational coalition. An Iraqi Interim Government was formed that assumed sovereignty in 2004. A new constitution was drafted and approved by vote of the Iraqi people. Elections were held and a new government was formed under the newly drafted constitution. Occupying troops continued to remain as the country struggled to adapt to the reforms. Insurgencies developed that brought about an increase in violence that peaked in about 2007. By 2010, the combat operations by occupying troops were ending and the country worked to sustain stable political conditions.
Turkey is the only remaining country of the vast Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for seven hundred years (1299–1923 CE). When the empire was at its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it controlled parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Arabia.
Located on the Bosporus—the straits that connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea—the ancient city of Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Called Istanbul today, this city is the largest in Turkey, but it is not the current capital.
Turkey moved its capital to Ankara on the Anatolian Plateau, which is centrally located in Turkey.
Turkey has a small portion of its land area on the western side of the Bosporus to claim its connection to Europe. Most of Turkey’s land area is a part of the Asian continent, and Turkey has often been referred to as Asia Minor. Mountains on Turkey’s eastern border with Armenia include Mount Ararat, which is the highest peak in the country at 16,946 feet in elevation. The Bible says that Mount Ararat was the resting place of Noah’s ark.
Genesis: 8:3-4 The waters receded steadily from the earth, and after 150 days the waters had gone down. On the seventeenth day of the seventh month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.
Turkey is the homeland of many plants that have been cultivated for food since the advent of agriculture, and the wild ancestors of many plants that now provide staples for humankind still grow in the area. Several wild species of tulip are native to this region’s mountains, and the flower was first introduced to Western Europe with species taken from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
Turkey has an amazing ecosystem with over 80,000 animal species. It’s also where various domesticated animals originate from, like the Anatolian Shepherd, the Turkish Angora cat, and the Angora rabbit.
The people of Turkey are neither Arab nor Persian; they are Turkish and speak the Turkish language. In the remote mountains of northern Turkey, some of the people communicate great distances by using a language called kuş dili:
As much as 90 percent of the Turkish population is Sunni Muslim, which is similar to many of the other Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Turkey is an established secular democracy with a democratically elected political leadership. To maintain its democracy, it has had to deal with Islamic fundamentalists, who often have supported a shift to an Islamic religious state. Turkey has also had to negotiate with its neighbors, Syria and Iraq, over water rights to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which originate in Turkey but flow through the other countries. Turkey has built dams on these rivers, much to the dismay of its neighbors, who want to use more of the water.
Turkey borders northern Iraq and was home to fifty-six million Turks and fourteen million Kurds as of 2010. The Kurdish claim of a homeland in eastern Turkey has not been recognized by the Turkish government. Open rebellion has been expressed by Kurdish groups wishing to become independent of Turkey, but the Turkish government has oppressed any movement toward independence. Many Kurds have migrated to Istanbul in search of work. They live and work in Istanbul and send money back to their families in eastern Turkey. The large city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey is predominantly Kurdish and is considered by many Kurds as the city that would be their capital if they had their own country of Kurdistan.
Turkey has a very diverse culture and their cuisine varies across the country. The Black Sea region uses lots of fish. The southeast is famous for its variety of kebabs. Istanbul inherited many elements of the Ottoman court cuisine, and Yoğurt is an important element in Turkish foods.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The island is separated by the Green Line, monitored by the UN, which divides the Greek-dominated south from the Turkish-dominated north. The two sides have been separated since a civil war in 1974. Turkish groups in the north have declared their half of the island the independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey is the only country that recognizes this proclamation; the rest of the world considers the whole island the Republic of Cyprus.
Cyprus suffers from a chronic shortage of water. The country relies heavily on rain to provide household water, but in the past 30 years average yearly precipitation has decreased.
Cyprus has two official languages, Greek and Turkish, but 80% of Cypriots can speak English and it’s featured widely on road signs, etc., probably because it was the official language during British colonial rule and was used in courts of law and legislation as late as 1996.
An example of Cypriot food is cauliflower. Botanists from the 12th and 13th centuries claimed the vegetable came from Cyprus originally, and cauliflower used to be known in Europe as Cyprus cabbage. There was also a long and extensive trade in cauliflower seeds from Cyprus, until well into the sixteenth century.
Iran covers a physical area larger than the US state of Alaska. It is a land of mountains and deserts: Iran’s central and eastern regions are mainly desert with few inhabitants, and the northern and western regions of the country are mountainous. The Elburz Mountains (also known as the Alborz) in the north around the Caspian Sea reach as high as eighteen thousand feet in elevation near the capital city of Tehran.
The Zagros Mountains run along the border with Iraq and the Persian Gulf for more than nine hundred miles and can reach elevations greater than fourteen thousand feet. Similar to the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb, Iran’s mountains trap moisture, allowing minor agricultural activities in the valleys. Most of Iran’s population lives in cities along the mountain ranges. Qanats—systems of shafts or wells along mountain slopes—bring water from the mountains to the valleys for irrigation and domestic use.
Iran was once the center of the Persian Empire, which has its origins as far back as 648 BCE, and the country was called Persia until about 1935.
The Ethnic Triangle of the Middle East consists of Persians in Iran, Turks in Turkey, and Arabs in Arabia. Most of the seventy million people in Iran are Persian. Iran has a long history with the ancient Persian Empire and the various conquering armies that followed it. During the rise of Islam, Iran had major contributions to the arts, mathematics, literature, philosophy, and science. The highly advanced carpet-weaving traditions from centuries past are but one example of the advancements in design and the technical expertise of the people.
The country’s Persian identity and culture continued throughout the centuries under different ruling powers. The Persian language remains and is a branch of the Indo-European language family. Arabic is widely used as a second language and a language used in science, which was helpful in reaching a broader audience and reaching out to the regional community with academic and scientific findings.
In 1971, Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of Persia’s first monarchy. The monarchy was ruled by a shah, which is a title for the sovereign leader in Iran similar to a king. The shah’s royal family ruled Iran from 1923 to 1979, when Islamic fundamentalists took control of the government. It was during this revolution on November 4, 1979, that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had previously been exiled by the shah, urged Iranians to oppose US activities in Iran. Iranian students stormed the US embassy and took US citizens hostage. Fifty-two Americans were held for 414 days during the US presidency of Jimmy Carter. The hostages were released the day that US president Ronald Reagan took office.
Khomeini indicated he had not been aware of the students’ plan but supported it. This is one reason the United States backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Khomeini ruled Iran until his death in 1989. Since then, Iran has been an Islamic state with an ayatollah as the Supreme Leader. An ayatollah is a high-ranking Shia cleric that is an expert in the Islamic faith and the Sharia (Muslim code of law based on the Koran). Approximately 90 percent of Iran’s population follows the Shia division of Islam.
Iran is at a crossroads in the conflict between conservative Islamic fundamentalists and Islamic reformers. The government of the Islamic state is controlled by Muslim clerics who tend to be more conservative in their rulings, but the young people are mainly on the side of the democratic reformers. Young people are becoming more familiar with Western culture. For example, the unofficial holiday of Valentine’s Day has become extremely popular in Iran and is celebrated by a large sector of the population, mainly young people. In an effort to curb the influence of Western culture, on February 13, 2011, the government of Iran officially banned all symbols or activities associated with Valentine’s Day. One claim was that the day was named after a Christian martyr and therefore was not supportive of Islam.
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Additional information and image credits:
Iraq physical map
By Urutseg – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14622303
Sunni triangle map
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1546169
Stone relief of Ninevah
By Aiwok – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14101545
By Robert Smith – taken by Robert Smith released into the public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11027455
Euphrates River photo
By Sergeant James McCauley – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17236044
By U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Denny C. Cantrell – U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3628184
By Salar Arkan – سالار ارکان – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79701450
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=341741
Turkey location map
By Turkey_location_map.svg: NordNordWestderivative work: Uwe Dedering (talk) – Turkey_location_map.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10750328
Kurdish boys in Diyarbakir
By charlesfred – https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/213403139/}, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6331959
By Ibrahim Husain Meraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37394994
By Source stated “The following maps were produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, unless otherwise indicated.” – Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/kurdish_lands_92.jpglinked from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1656189
By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32500984
Tulip distribution map
By Retired electrician // Map: user:STyx – Own work based on figure 1 in Christenhusz, M. et al. Tiptoe through the tulips – cultural history, molecular phylogenetics and classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae) // Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. — 2013. — Vol. 172. — P. 280-328. and File:World location map.svg (PD by user:STyx), CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36259862
By Karen Arnold – http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=34108&picture=anatolian-shepherd-dog, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26023649
By Ross Little – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2759678
Anatolian Shepherd info
By Noumenon – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=827946
By Lesya Dolyk – https://www.flickr.com/photos/128268906@N07/17002299881/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40113781
By United States Central Intelligence Agency – CIA World Factbook: Cyprus. Archived from the original on 3 June 2003., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19014
Cyprus world location
By NuclearVacuum – File:Location European nation states.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8105074
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1469097
By Mahdi Kalhor, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52046077
By Joshua Doubek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27171101
Zagros Mountains photo
By ninara – Flickr: IMG_6062, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32292721
By Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50514383
Persian Empire – By William Robert Shepherd – http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_asia.htmlhttp://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd/persian_empire.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=331088