Full name: Republic of Iraq
Head of State:Jalal Talabani
Population: 29 million (UN, 2007)
Ethnic Groups: Persian, Azeri, Gilaki and Mazandarani, Kurd, Arab, Lur, Baloch, Turkmen.
Languages: Arabic, Kurdish
Religion: Islam

Iraq is a country that has been the site of years of warfare, violence, oppression and poverty, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it is one of Britain’s top ten refugee producing countries.

Like many Middle Eastern countries, Iraq was born out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, which was then divided up by the League of Nations amongst the Allied Powers. Iraq, formerly known as Mesopotamia, fell under British rule in 1921 and comprised of three Ottoman provinces: Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and the southern province of Basra.

Under the British mandate, the sectarian and ethnic divisions that still plague Iraq’s politics today were formed. Within Iraq 60% of the populace is made up of Shi‘a Muslims, making it the majority group in the country. However the Ottoman rule across the Middle East was one dominated by Sunni Muslims, and under the mandate these ex-Ottoman officials were reinstalled in positions of political and military power. This marked the beginning of over eighty years of a minority Sunni domination over the countries majority Shi‘ite population; one that spanned the monarchic era, the Ba’thist era and culminated with the notorious dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. During this time, the Shi‘a population were persistently excluded and repressed both institutionally and on the ground by means of violence and coercion. Likewise, ethnic minorities like the Kurds, Assyrians, Mandeans, Iraqi Turkomen, Shabaks and the Roma population were oppressed, particularly Saddam’s notoriously violent rule that saw acts of ethnic cleansing that brutally contained all political resistance.

In 1980, unsettled relations between Iraq and Iran came to a head following two political events that crucially coincided in 1979: Saddam’s rise to power in Iraq and the Iranian Revolution that created a Shi‘a Islamic republic in Iran. The war that broke out continued for eight years, with devastating effects on Iraq’s state, social and economic structures. Refugees fled violence that came from both Iranian attacks and within Iraq itself: in the Halabja massacre Saddam is alleged to have killed Kurdish civilians in Iraq as punishment Kurdish support of Iran.

On August 2nd 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait, sparking the first Gulf war between Iraq and a coalition led by the U.S. Sanctions were placed on Iraq, preventing them from selling oil. Given the country’s existing state of economic crisis following the costly and drawn-out war with Iraq, this had catastrophic effects. Oil was the country’s main source of income, and thousands of civilians died and many more fled in the face of the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions as a result of the sanctions. The Oil-For-Food programme that was instigated in 1995 acknowledged this situation whereby ordinary civilians were bearing the brunt of the sanctions: it allowed Iraq to sell oil in return for food, with strict control over distribution to attempt to ensure that it reached those most in need.

2003 saw the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, the deposing of Saddam, the lifting of economic sanctions and the attempt at generating democracy in the county. Certainly, the new government has attempted to redress the balance of ethnic and sectarian groups in power, transforming the political fortunes of the Shi‘a and Kurdish communities. However high levels of violence continue in the Iraqi resistance to the occupation, and the state structures all but collapsed following the invasion. Refugees continue to flee the political instability and violence that has now come to characterize the post-2003 Iraq.

At A Glance: A Timeline of Iraq

  • 1921 - British mandate established in Iraq</li>
  • 1932 - Mandate officially ended; independent monarchic era commences.
  • 1927 - Discovery of huge oil fields; establishing of the Iraqi Petroleum Company.
  • 1958 - Overthrowing of the monarchy by military officers.
  • 1979 - Saddam Hussein becomes second in command - is de facto ruler of Iraq.
  • 1980 - Iran-Iraq war begins.
  • 1990 - Iraq invades Kuwait.
  • 1991 - Economic sanctions are placed on Iraq.
  • 1995 - Oil-For-Food programme begins.
  • 2003 - U.S. led coalition invades Iraq.
  • 2003 - (December) Saddam Hussein captured.
  • 2006 - (December) Saddam Hussein executed.
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