Country Briefing

After Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, a US led coalition routed the Iraqi invaders and liberated Kuwait in the Gulf War. The coalition forces did not remove Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein at that time. Over the next 12 years the international community imposed sanctions on Iraq, attempting to facilitate UN weapons inspections.

After the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11, 2001, America’s war on terror soon focused on Iraq. U.S. President George Bush denounced Iraq’s alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and led a coalition to war with Iraq to destroy Iraq’s weapons programs and remove Saddam Hussein as leader.

America quickly over-powered Iraqi forces, deposed the dictator and launched poorly planned and poorly executed nation-building efforts, hoping to establish a democratic government. The geopolitical complications in this region will result in Iraq remaining a dangerous, political flashpoint for the foreseeable future.




Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers has been home to Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations. The region is called both the cradle of civilization and the crossroads of civilizations. The region was conquered by the Persians the 6th century B.C. and remained under their control for about 1000 years before the Arab conquest in the 7th century. With the rise of Islam, the Caliphate (center of Islamic rule) was relocated from Damascus to Baghdad around 762 and established as a great center of culture - the city of the “thousand and one nights.” After a period of decline, Genghis Khan’s Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and ushered in an era of instability as various empires asserted control. The region was eventually unified as part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1534 and remained in tact until World War I.

During World War I, the Ottoman’s were allied with Germany. As the British defeated the Turks and occupied Iraq in 1915, the Iraqis held visions of independence. These hopes were quashed when France and Britain signed the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, an agreement to divide the Arab region between these two countries. In 1920 the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Mesopotamia. The British established a monarchy to administer the territory and installed a Hashemite king. Iraq was granted independence in 1932, but its sovereignty was constrained by treaty agreements with Britain and France that guaranteed oil flows via European owned pipelines.

After 1932, anti-British, anti-monarchy nationalists repeatedly attempted to overthrow the king, but were thwarted by British intervention. Iraq joined the Arab League and after Israel was established in 1948, joined the Arab-Israeli War, prompting widespread Iraqi Jewish emigration to Israel. In 1958, anti-imperialists launched a successful coup, executing the royal family and establishing a leftist Arab republic, under control of Abdul Karim Kassim, who then nationalized western oil and industrial interests and asserted a claim to the emirate of Kuwait.

Kassim was deposed in 1963 and after a period of instability, the Ba’ath (Renaissance) Socialist party launched a military coup and successfully consolidated power. The Ba’ath Party viewed the Arab world as a single, indivisible economic and political entity. Baghdad pursued a relatively liberal policy toward the Kurds in northern Iraq, granting status to the Kurdish language and a degree of local autonomy. Nonetheless, a Kurdish rebellion ensued, supported by the Shah of Iran. In 1975, the Kurds were defeated but their aspirations for self-determination continued.

Saddam Hussein al-Takriti became president in 1979 following the resignation of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.  Also in 1979, the Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini as leader if the Islamic fundamentalist state. This Islamic Fundamentalist (Islamist) movement was seen as a future threat to secular Arab regimes.

In 1980, a dispute with Iran over access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway erupted into war as Iraqi troops crossed the canal blocking Iranian access. This war was also a war against Islamists. Iraq received support from Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., while fundamentalist Iran was allied with Syria and Libya. Although neither side made any significant military progress, the war claimed over one million lives, and both sides were reported to have used poison gases. A UN mediated ceasefire was agreed to in 1988. This same year, Kurdish refugees to Turkey reported the use of poison gas against their villages in northern Iraq. In March 1988, over 5,000 Kurds were killed by poison gas in the village of Halbja.


Iraq had long standing territorial claims to Kuwait, in their view, an artificial emirate created by the British. After Kuwait refused to agree to oil export quotas and increased oil extraction near the Iraq-Kuwait border, Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait. The UN imposed an economic and military blockade, while the US assembled a military coalition to liberate Kuwait.

On January 17, 1991, the overwhelming US coalition began 47 days of air strikes against Iraq, followed by a 4-day land invasion that drove the highly regarded Iraqi army from Kuwait, leaving a trial of Iraqi destruction. The US demonstrated overwhelming superiority using its high technology air power; cruise missiles, stealth fighters and bombers and precision guided bombs. Iraq countered by launching obsolete Soviet Scud missiles at Israel. Although Saddam Hussein claimed to have chemical and biological warheads, only conventional warheads were used. The US prevailed upon Israel not to retaliate and provided a protection by Patriot anti-missile missiles. A ceasefire agreement was negotiated that provided for: Iraq’s disarmament; arms inspections of Iraq’s military sites; establishment of a no-fly zone; and economic sanctions. 

Although President George Bush (Sr.) refused to authorize an invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, the US encouraged internal rebellion by Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiites (Muslims) in the South. However, the US then abandoned the rebels, who were decimated by Iraq’s still potent army. The US eventually provided protective air cover while as many as one million Kurds and Shiites were forced to flee to Iran and Turkey, while thousands starved and froze to death in the winter.


UN inspectors found and destroyed Iraq weapons of mass destruction and nuclear development facilities, including sarin gas warheads and multiple uranium fuel enrichment installations. The UN imposed economic sanctions limiting Iraq oil exports and imports of basic commodities, prompting claims that the sanctions were killing civilians. According to some estimates as many as 500,000 children died as a consequence of the economic embargo, while others counter that it was Iraqi government policies that caused the deaths.

In 1993, the US launched cruise missiles to destroy Iraq’s military intelligence headquarters in retaliation for an Iraqi plot to assassinate President Bush (Sr.). In March 1995, Turkish troops invaded Kurdistan in northern Iraq, even though this region was under protection by US forces. Turkey was attacking Kurdish guerillas (PKK) that were active inside Turkey. The Turks even established permanent military bases within Iraq’s borders. In 1996 as fighting broke out between Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, the US again launched cruise missiles against Iraq to deter their military intervention.

Following running disputes between Iraqi officials and UN weapons inspectors, the inspectors were forced out in 1998. Economic sanctions continued, while US planes and Iraqi ground installations exchanged fire in the no-fly zone.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in America, the new US Bush  Administration renewed its interest in removing Saddam Hussein as President of Iraq, citing his continuing development of weapons of mass destruction and willingness to use them against regional neighbors or against the US. In October 2002, the US Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq and seeking the return of weapons inspectors.

In March 2003, the US and its coalition partners invaded Iraq, quickly defeated the Iraqi army and deposed Saddam Hussein.

The UN authorized the US to act as the occupying authority and the US-led coalition set up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to govern until an Iraqi government could be organized. Funds collected during the period of economic sanctions from the oil-for-food program were entrusted to the CPA, which established the Development Fund for Iraq, which would provide for humanitarian aid, reconstruction and organizational costs of the new government.


The US organized and held a series of elections for the Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) and, subsequently (Jan. 2005) for a transitional government according to the new Iraqi constitution and the CPA disbanded on June 28, 2004. In May 2005, the Iraqi Transitional Government appointed a multi-ethnic committee to draft a new Iraqi Constitution. The new constitution was finalized in September 2005, and was ratified in a nationwide referendum on October 15, 2005.

On December 15, 2005, Iraqis again went to the polls to participate in the first legislative elections as laid out by the new constitution. The new four-year, constitutionally based government took office in March 2006, and the new cabinet was approved and installed in May 2006, under the leadership of Prime Minister--Nuri al-Maliki

The coalition victory marked the start of a new stage of internal conflict as insurgents, former Iraqi army dissidents and foreign fighters began a guerilla campaign against the occupying forces. Attacks initially targeted coalition forces and oil pipelines, but soon expanded to terrorist attacks against Iraqis cooperating with the coalition, seeking jobs in the police or military.

The insurgency grew and advanced more quickly that training of Iraqi security forces. After it was learned that US forces were detaining and torturing Iraqi prisoners, the insurgency became gruesomely robust in its activities launching a wide array of tactics from roadside bombs, kidnappings and beheadings to suicide bombs. The insurgency has been disturbingly inventive. In October 2006, hundreds of Iraqi security forces were poisoned en mass in a government mess hall.

Classified USG reports released in fall 2006 revealed that the Iraqi insurgency had grown steadily since fall 2003, all but paralyzing reconstruction efforts. Initial Iraqi optimism at relief from Saddam Hussein’s reign of fear and prospects for economic recovery have been replaced by frustration, anger and hopelessness. Iraq has been plunged into anarchy reminiscent of Afghanistan between1980 and 2002, a violent stalemate characterized by an acceptable level of violence.

Arguably, the only thing preventing full-scale civil war was US air power and Iraq’s desert environment that denies armed factions the ability to mass and maneuver.


The future challenge will come from the requisite military occupation of Iraq and the difficulties in establishing a new, presumably democratic government. The coalition partners attempted to unify Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites of southern Iraq share religious affinity with Iranians, and many support a separate Islamic state. Long oppressed under Saddam’s Ba’athist rule, the Shi’a are the clear majority group and are intent on ruling the country.

Many Sunnis were members of the former government and members of the secular ruling B’aath Party and are reluctant to give up, or share power. To complicate matters further, there is an active movement by fundamentalist Sunni Muslims. The Jund al-Islam (soldiers of Islam), Ansr al-Islam, and Al-Qaeda of Iraq want to destabilize the region, spread Islamic rule, and eliminate non-Muslims. Islamist extremists are intent on blocking any plans that suggest continuing US occupation, or influence, in Middle Eastern affairs.

Northern Kurds (Sunni) have become suspicious of US promises of support and hold long-standing dreams of establishing a Kurdish state. Turkey is vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish state in the area of northern Iraq, especially if it includes the oil-producing region around Kirkut. The Turks fear that this would encourage Kurdish separatists within Turkey and re-ignite the deadly rebellion led by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has claimed over 30,0000 lives (See: Turkey-Kurdistan). Turkey, which denied US use of its territory to move troops into Iraq, has threatened to invade an independent Kurdish state and firefights have resulted with Turkish troops active inside Iraq.

Furthermore, Iraqi and Arab society rests on a foundation of tribes and inter-tribal alliances that can transcend religious or ethnic affiliations. Tribal motives and alliances often shift with the desert winds, adding further complexity to an already intractable situation.


Iraqi-Kurdistan is divided into two parts because Kurdish factions have been unable and unwilling to unite. The western region is controlled by the KDP lead by Massoud Barzani. There are about 1.8 million Kurds in the western regions, with the capitol in Irbil. The eastern region in controlled by the PUK led by Jalal Talabani. There are about 1.2 million Kurds in this southeastern region of Suleimaniyah. The KDP and PUK have established independent administrative, legislative, and executive entities.

In September 2002, Barzani and Talabani were invited to Washington to meet with President Bush under the condition that they both come together. Barzani refused the invitation citing skepticism that the US would make good on any new promises, when it had failed to uphold previous promises of support. By helping remove Saddam Hussein the Kurds hope to gain full autonomy, and ultimately independence, but would then need US help to deter a Turkish invasion. Yet the US relies on Turkey as a key ally and a base for military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is a predicament for the Americans and a source of distrust among Kurds.

The Europeans could play a role in devising a solution by granting Turkey’s wish to join the European Union in exchange for Turkey granting independence to the Kurds in eastern Turkey and ultimately creating the state of Kurdistan agreed to at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Sevres, but negated by the Turks.  It’s a long shot and such an event would still leave unresolved the factional disputes between the KDP, PUK and the largest Kurdish group, the PKK, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan is serving a life term in a Turkish prison.

If history runs true to from, the Kurds will get the bad end of the deal and remain the world’s largest nation of people without a state, while Iraq remains a political flashpoint well into the future.




Capital: Baghdad
Area: 438,320 sq km
About the size of California
Population: 30,291,000
People: Arab (78%); Kurd 18%)

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