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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Iraq has been a part of the Islamic world since the 600s. Powerful caliphs once ruled vast empires from Baghdad, the capital of present-day Iraq. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 24 million people live in the country. Shi'i Muslims make up 60 percent of the population, and Sunni Muslims account for around 35 percent. The remaining 5 percent include Jews, Christians, and other minorities. Iraq has ethnic as well as religious minorities. Most Iraqis are Arabs, but 15 to 20 percent are Kurds who mainly live in northern areas. Conflict between different groups has created longstanding tensions in Iraq. The nation struggles to find stability in the face of internal dissent and threats from other countries.

    Succession of Conquests

    Arab armies first brought Islam to the Iraqi region in the mid-600s. The Umayyad caliphate ruled the area until 750, when the Abbasid caliphate took over. The Abbasids created the city of Baghdad as their capital, and it became a powerful and thriving metropolis. In 1055 Seljuk Turks captured the city. The Abbasids regained much of the region in the early 1200s, but Mongol armies invaded the area in 1258 . In 1535 the Ottomans seized Iraq and added it to their growing empire.

    Iraq Under Ottoman Rule.

    The Ottoman sultans made many reforms in Iraq. They reorganized the local government, increased trade, and improved living conditions. They also established Sunni Islam as the ruling faith in Baghdad. The Shi'i Muslims in the south identified more with Shi'is in Iran than with the Ottoman administration. The tension between the Shi'i population and the dominant Sunnis led to many conflicts.


    After the fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Shi'i Muslims take their ritual walk to the holy city of Karbala for the first time in many years. Shi'i Muslims were not allowed to make this pilgrimage under Saddam's regime.

    Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

    view larger image

    Ottoman influence in Iraq began to wane in the 1600s. The sultans in Istanbul relaxed their grip on Iraq, granting greater authority to local leaders. Iranian forces took the opportunity to invade Iraq, killing and enslaving thousands of Sunni Muslims. The Ottomans regained control and retaliated by executing much of Baghdad's Shi'i population. The Mamluks, a dynasty of slave soldiers who had gained power over the caliphs, took over parts of Iraq in the mid-1700s, suppressing conflicts and helping to stabilize the region. The Ottomans returned in 1831 . After World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), however, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization, established the borders of present-day Iraq, adding portions of Kurdistan to traditional Iraqi lands along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The League of Nations then gave Iraq to Great Britain as a mandate so that Britain would prepare the country for its eventual independence.

    Britain and Independence.

    Great Britain remained a major presence in Iraq for nearly 40 years. In 1921 British leaders established Faysal I, an Arab leader who had been exiled from Arabia, as king of Iraq. During Faysal's reign, Iraqis increasingly sought to break away from Great Britain. British troops suppressed rebellions of Kurds in the north and Shi'is in the south. Many British officials also wanted to withdraw from the region. In 1932 Britain granted Iraq its independence, and the League of Nations accepted the nation as a new member. British troops, however, maintained bases in Iraq, and Iraqi officials remained subservient, agreeing to consult with Britain, especially on issues of foreign policy.

    King Faysal died in 1933 . The following year, three governments rose and fell with tribal uprisings. Military leaders and various factions vied for control of Iraq, and World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) caused even more confusion. Iraqi leaders originally retained their loyalty to Britain, but supporters of a Pan-Arab alliance pushed to gain further independence. They formed military ties to Britain's enemies, Germany and Italy. British forces quickly defeated Iraqi troops and forced the nation to support Britain in its war effort.

    Iraq experienced more political unrest after the war. Several governments formed and fell. Shi'i leaders in the south remained resentful of British influence, and Kurds in the north challenged Iraqi leaders. In 1958 a group of officers organized a military takeover of the government. Ranking officer Abd al-Karim Qasim declared Iraq a republic on July 14 , and the new constitution affirmed Islam as the state religion and abolished the monarchy.

    Triumph of the Ba'th Party

    Soon after the revolution of 1958 , Iraq once again plunged into political turmoil. Qasim's regime fell in 1963 . The Ba'th Party, an Arab political group advocating socialism and nationalism, emerged as a strong force. In 1968 the Ba'th Party gained the support of the army and took control of the government. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr assumed the presidency with Saddam Hussein as his right-hand man.

    The new government sought to expand the economy and to replace free enterprise with socialism. They also worked to free their industries from foreign control. In the 1970s, Iraq nationalized its oil production, leading to an increase in the nation's wealth. The new government also sponsored irrigation projects, agricultural reforms, and programs to improve living conditions for the peasants. Farming projects produced little success, however, and industrial production lagged as well. The Ba'th government eventually abandoned its socialist goals and allowed for private investment and private enterprises.

    Clashes With Kurds and Shi'is.

    Ethnic and religious divisions posed a challenge for the Ba'th leaders, who were Arabs belonging to the Sunni faith. Shi'i groups in the south worked to free the cities of Najaf and Karbala from Ba'th control. These cities contain some of the most holy sites in the Islamic world, and believers from many countries make pilgrimages to visit the tombs of imams. Najaf also served for a time as a refuge for future Iranian leader and Shi'i rebel Ruhollah Khomeini during his 14-year exile from Iran. The marja'iyah, a network of religious leaders, led uprisings against the Ba'th government to rid the cities of Sunni influence and gained international support for its struggles.

    In the north, the Kurdish people sought to break away from Iraq and form a separate state. In 1968 , with support from Iran, the Kurds engaged the Iraqi army in a civil war. In 1970 the Iraqi government agreed to recognize the Kurds as a separate group entitled to self-rule. War broke out again in 1974 , after the government failed to honor certain agreements. Wishing to gain territories in northern Iraq, the shah of Iran again provided aid to the Kurds. Iraqi leaders met with the shah, and the two parties reached an agreement regarding Iraqi borders. Iran withdrew its support for the Kurds, and the conflict died down.

    In 1979 Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr retired from the presidency, and Saddam Hussein replaced him. The new leader quickly suppressed a plot against his rule, executing 22 conspirators. Hussein tolerated no opposition. He arrested dozens of communists, forcing them to flee the country. Other opposition parties either disbanded or operated in secret.

    Iraq at War.

    In 1979 a militant Shi'i group under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini took control of the government of Iran. Khomeini denounced Hussein's regime as secular and declared that he would establish an Islamic government in Iraq. Hussein sought to fend off Khomeini and also to regain access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which Iraq had been forced to cede to Iran during the 1970s. In September 1980 , Iraqi forces invaded Iran, bombing strategic targets and beginning a war between the two nations that lasted for eight years.

    In the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi forces advanced into Iran. The Iranian army grew in strength and numbers and invaded Iraq in 1982 . Iraqi Kurds took the opportunity to rise up against Baghdad. Hussein fought back with poison gas and weapons acquired from France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. In order to stop Khomeini, the United States provided Saddam Hussein with intelligence information. Iraq pushed the Iranian troops back, and in 1988 , Khomeini agreed to end the war.

    Both Iran and Iraq suffered heavy losses during the war, and little territory changed hands. Iraq owed a debt of at least $80 billion to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries in the region. Saddam Hussein believed that his debtors would release him from his obligations, and even help pay for the reconstruction of Iraq, out of sympathy for his struggle to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The leaders of these countries, however, insisted that Iraq repay the debt, despite its war losses. They also increased their own oil production, leading to a drop in oil prices that reduced Iraq's income.

    U.S. and British leaders became alarmed when Saddam Hussein decided to take revenge on Kuwait. For decades, Iraqi leaders had claimed that British and Ottoman leaders had unjustly separated Kuwait from Iraq. Kuwait had also played a role in driving down oil prices. In August 1990 , Iraq invaded the country, beginning the Persian Gulf War.

    The United Nations condemned the attack and imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, preventing the import of such goods as food and medicine. U.S. President George Bush feared a threat to his nation's economic interests in Kuwait. Following his lead, several nations, including a few Muslim countries, formed an alliance against Saddam Hussein and attacked Iraqi targets in January 1991 . By April, ground troops had routed the Iraqi army and driven it out of Kuwait.

    Iraq suffered heavy economic losses during both wars. Bombs and missiles had damaged several cities, and the Iraqi armed forces had been seriously weakened. In 1991 , encouraged by the United States, both Kurds and Shi'is rebelled against the central government. Saddam Hussein, however, had just enough military strength to crush these rebellions. His forces were especially brutal in their campaign against the Kurds. Thousands died from hunger and disease, and others fled to Turkey.

    End of the Regime.

    The Baghdad regime continued to face threats from the Shi'is in the south and the Kurds in the north. Saddam Hussein survived uprisings in part because his enemies lacked unified strategies. In 1992 , however, several groups opposed to the Ba'th party met in Vienna to form the Iraqi National Congress, an organization with the goal of toppling Hussein.

    The Iraqi leader faced economic problems as well as frequent uprisings. After the Gulf War, the United Nations demanded that Iraq give up its missiles and weapons of mass destruction. When Iraq failed to comply, the U.N. imposed trade sanctions. Iraq's economy and population suffered greatly. In 1996 the U.N. created an oil-for-food program, allowing Iraq to sell oil to other countries if it would agree to use the money to buy food and medicine for its people. Conditions improved slightly for the nation's citizens, but hunger, poverty, and poor health care remained widespread problems.

    Saddam Hussein took steps to ensure that he remained in power. Aware that another uprising could devastate Iraq, he tried to increase his popularity with the Shi'is. He donated gold and silver to decorate the domes of Shi'i holy tombs and rewrote his family history to claim that he descended from Muhammad through the Shi'i line. Hussein also continued to use force to suppress dissent. After the 1991 uprising, for example, he had over 100 Shi'i clerics and religious scholars executed.

    In early 2003 , President George W. Bush of the United States claimed that Saddam Hussein had failed in his promise to the United Nations to remove all of his biological and chemical weapons. Bush openly declared his intention to have Hussein removed from power, and an American-led coalition invaded Iraq and succeeded in ending Saddam Hussein's regime. See also Abbasid Caliphate; Gulf States; Iran; Mamluk State; Seljuk Dynasty; Umayyad Caliphate.

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