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The Cradle of Civilization
The area of what is modern Iraq was the birthplace one of the earliest human civilizations. A long series of literate cultures, cities, kingdoms and empires emerged in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When Alexander the Great entered the gates of Babylon at the head of his armies, he was an upstart, while Iraq was the home of what was already an ancient civilization.
Sumerian civilization emerged in Iraq about 4000 BCE. It evolved a rich and complex culture; built cities, temples and palaces; and developed sophisticated irrigation systems for large-scale agriculture. Sumerians also developed the earliest system of writing — cuneiform — in which they recorded their myths such as the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Sumerians invented the wheel about 3700 BCE and a system of mathematics.
The Sumerians were followed by the Babylonians and the Assyrians. King Hammurabi of Babylon promulgated a famous law-code, which was a landmark in the development of a system of social justice. The biblical Abraham, the spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was originally from the city of Ur in Iraq. The Assyrians further developed geometry and medical science. Alexander‘s conquest led the building of Greek cities and the spread of Hellenistic culture. Finally, Iraq was absorbed into the Persian Empire until the rise of the Muslim empires in the 7th century.
Arab-Islamic Civilization: The Center of Medieval World Civilization
Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid Empire in the 8th century. This cosmopolitan commercial city was a famous center of culture and learning. It was regarded as the intellectual center of the world, standing at the crossroads of the trade routes between Europe, Byzantium, the Middle East, India and China. Arab, Greek and Persian cultures mingled, and philosophy, science, medicine, literature and the arts flourished in the universities and the court. Arabic became the primary language and most of the people gradually converted to Islam. Christians and Jews lived with Muslims in relative harmony as worshipers of the one God. The Empire reached from the borders of China to the Mediterranean and northern Africa.
Catastrophe struck with the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan and his successors in the 13th century. Baghdad was conquered and the countryside devastated. The entire region went into decline. Irrigation systems collapsed and agriculture declined to be replaced by swamps and marshes. The European discovery of a route around Africa to India led the decline of trade and commerce through Iraq. Urban society declined and the people turned to tribally-based pastoral nomadism. It was a “dark age.” In the 17th century, Iraq became a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire until the British took over after World War I. Britain set up a monarchy which became independent in 1932.
Modern Iraq: Society and Culture
The British developed the oil fields of Iraq and planned a railroad from Europe through Turkey and Iraq to the Arabian Gulf, which would allow more direct trade with India. Modernization led to a growing urban-based nationalist movement and Pan-Arabism as a powerful force, especially in the Iraqi military. A period of political instability ended when the Ba‘thist Party came to power in 1968. Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. The political system has been highly undemocratic and brutal to its political opponents. During the 1980s Iraq and Iran fought a major, prolonged war resulting in a very high casualty rate.
The oil economy, fertile land, abundant water and an educated population made Iraq one of the richest and most highly-developed countries in the Middle East. By 1980 the literacy rate reached 70% and primary school enrollment was 100%. A government-sponsored women‘s movement promoted women‘s education and the entry of women into the workforce. The government built a modern educational system of schools and universities, a modern medical system of hospitals and clinics, and an extensive infrastructure of roads and railroads, electrical power grids, irrigation systems, petrochemical and other industries, luxury hotels, public buildings, radio and TV systems, airports, and middle class housing developments. Baghdad and some other cities are newer and more modern than many U.S. cities.
Iraq is a highly diverse country of 17 million people, two thirds of whom are urban. Most speak Arabic, but there is also a sizable population of Kurds as well as Assyrians, Turkomans and Armenians. Most are Muslim, both Sunni and Shi‘a, but there are large and ancient Christian communities dating from the time of the Apostles. Until recently, Iraq had Jewish communities whose history went back to the time of the Babylonians. A few hundred Jews still live in Iraq.
The Gulf War and the Iraqi People
After Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait 1990, the U.S. led forces of many nations in a war which defeated Iraq, ended the occupation, and resulted in uprisings by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and Shi‘a forces in the south. The Iraqi regime successfully crushed the Shi‘a, but the Kurdish region remained partly autonomous, although politically fragmented. Turkish forces have made repeated military attacks on Kurdish guerilla groups in Iraq. The human suffering of the Iraqi people has been enormous — from the warfare, from being uprooted from their homes, and from social and economic dislocations.
Much of this stems from the severe economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than one million Iraqis have died, over 600,000 of them children. The World Health Organization found the majority of the population to be on a semi-starvation diet. In 1996, UNICEF reported that 4,500 children were dying monthly, due to food shortages, malnutrition-related infectious diseases, and a shortage of medical supplies. Electric, water purification and sewage treatment plants have been destroyed. The UN Oil-for-Food program has not met the humanitarian needs.
The US has had a variety of reasons for the sanctions: to force Iraq to allow the UN inspectors to destroy chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction, to force compliance with all UN resolutions (including reparations to Kuwait), and to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. The Iraqi government has partly complied with and partly resisted these pressures. The U.S. and Britain have favored continuing the sanctions, while much of the international community moved towards an easing of the economic sanctions, while retaining an arms embargo. Currently, the sanctions have been overshadowed by the Bush Administration‘s militarized policy towards Iraq.