A republic in western Asia, occupying the Tigris and Euphrates valley, north of Arabia. Mesopotamia, which corresponds with the modern area of Iraq, was the center of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations for thousands of years, until its conquest by Persia in the 6th century B.C. For the next 24 centuries, the region was ruled by a succession of foreign powers: Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Turks. In the early 16th century, it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and its first stamps were those of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. During World War I, Mesopotamia was occupied by British forces, and it became a British mandated territory in 1920. In 1921, a kingdom was established under Faisal I, son of King Hussein of Hejaz and leader of the Arab Army in World War I. Britain withdrew from Iraq in 1932, although it intervened during World War II to overthrow a pro-Axis ministry. In 1958, the monarchy was deposed, and a pan-Arab, pro-Soviet republic was established. The new regime nationalized most Iraqi industry and broke up large land holdings. Iraq maintained close ties with Syria, which is ruled by another branch of the same Baathist political party that overthrew the monarchy and with the Soviet Union. In 1973, Iraq sent troops to support Syria in its war with Israel. In 1975 it brutally repressed Kurdish nationalist agitation in the north. In 1978, relations with the Soviet Union cooled, and a number of communists were executed. In 1979, Saddam Hussein became president, quickly establishing his power in a bloody purge.
In September 1980, Iraq, prompted by a long-standing border dispute and by the new Iranian regime's attempts to foment revolution among Iraq's Shi'ite minority, invaded Iran. Strong Iranian resistance soon brought the war to a standstill, despite periodic heavy fighting. Both nations suffered terrible losses, both human and financial, in the course of an eight-year war. In 1988, a cease-fire was negotiated. Determined to establish Iraqi preeminence in the region, Saddam attacked and quickly occupied its oil-rich southern neighbor, Kuwait, in August 1990. This prompted an international crisis and the rapid creation of a coalition of nations, led by the United States, aligned against Iraq. A massive allied build-up followed, and in January 1991, heavy strategic bombing of Iraq began. In February, allied forces liberated Kuwait and invaded Iraq, which was soundly defeated within four days. To the surprise of most Americans and Westerners, the allied force stopped short of deposing Saddam. In the months following his defeat, Saddam was faced with numerous revolts throughout the country. These were suppressed ruthlessly, especially those of the Shi'ites in the south, who have traditionally sought union with their co-religionists in Iran, and the Kurds in the north. The two groups, given half-measures of protection by the allies, have continued to be the victims of Iraqi persecution, including poison gas attacks against civilians in rebellious areas.
In 1993 and 1996, the United States targeted Iraqi sites for missile attacks, following Saddam's involvement in a plan to assassinate President Bush and in retaliation for his attacks against Kurds in a protected neutral zone in the north. As a part of the cease-fire agreement, the Iraqi government agreed to discontinue its nuclear weapons program, which was only a few years away from development of effective nuclear devices. It also agreed to halt its huge chemical and biological weapons program. Since then, it has almost certainly continued chemical and biological weapons development, and has prevented United Nations teams from inspecting its research and storage sites. This prompted a crisis in early 1998, as the United States moved forces into the region and threatened military enforcement of the agreement. An eleventh-hour agreement to allow U.N. inspectors free access to all sites halted U.S. military action for the time being.
The Iraqi economy
has been hurt by an embargo linked to the regime's honoring of the 1991
cease-fire, and the Iraqi people have suffered badly, as food and medical
supplies are often in short supply. The Iraqi government has continued to
maintain large military budgets, however, and Saddam has managed to erect
many presidential palaces throughout the country.