IRAQ: The Country

February 3, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What are the key facts about Iraq?

Iraq is a large, oil-rich, Arab state bordering on the Persian Gulf. It shares borders with Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and its population of 24 million is 60 percent Shiite, 18 percent Sunni Kurd, and 15 percent Sunni Arab. In recent decades, a Sunni Arab clique led by President Saddam Hussein imposed a totalitarian police state in Iraq. Saddam held on to power through an eight-year battle with Iran in the 1980s, the U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991 and subsequent international sanctions. He was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in April 2003.

Was Iraq once a major center of world civilization?

Yes. What’s now Iraq was the site of ancient Mesopotamia, the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that thousands of years ago gave rise to the cities of Ur and Babylon. Baghdad, the present-day capital of Iraq, was the seat of the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled a vast Muslim empire from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. The city developed into a center of learning and architecture.

How did Saddam Hussein take power?

As a young man in the 1960s, Saddam was an active member of Iraq’s Baath Party, a far-left, revolutionary group that sought to establish Arab socialist states across the region. When the Baath overthrew Iraq’s military regime in 1968, Saddam’s cousin, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, became president of Iraq and chairman of the new ruling Revolutionary Command Council. But experts say that even then Saddam wielded the real power in Iraq; as one of Bakr’s deputies, he built a massive security network of spies and informers. Saddam formally took over in 1979. With the help of Sunni backers from his hometown of Tikrit, Saddam soon assumed unchallenged authority and turned on several of his former supporters, many of whom were executed.

What kind of leader was Saddam?

He demanded unwavering loyalty from his subjects, and to ensure it he tortured and killed potential foes, purged the army, and terrorized even his closest deputies, according to experts and Iraqi dissidents. For protection, Saddam moved quickly and anonymously among his more than 20 palaces with only a small entourage; it is said that his whereabouts were often unknown, even to his children. Saddam saw himself as one of history’s greatest leaders, a visionary destined to restore Iraq to its former glory. Experts say that although he claimed to trace his lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad and invoked Islamic themes more frequently after his Gulf War defeat, Saddam is not particularly religious and generally ruled as a secular, far-left tyrant. His core objectives, Iraq watchers say, were to maintain his rule and to resist alleged U.S. attempts to dominate the Arab world. Experts say Iraqis overwhelmingly feared and hated him, although many Iraqis also resented outside attacks and sanctions.

What was Iraq’s human rights record like?

Dreadful, human rights groups say, even compared to the troubling practices of other Middle East regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Though extreme measures such as torture are prohibited by Iraq’s constitution, experts say that in practice, Saddam’s brutal whims went unchecked, and security forces and the dreaded Mukhabarat secret police were never held accountable for excesses. Dissenters were often executed publicly to terrify the larger population, with families of victims forced to watch and even cover the costs of the executions. In the 1970s and early 1980s, tens of thousands of majority Shiites were deported to Iran, and the Saddam regime subsequently murdered scores of Shiite leaders and their families. It was widely reported that in the 1988 Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi troops dropped deadly chemical agents including mustard gas, sarin, and possibly VX on the northern town of Halabja, killing thousands of civilians.

How were Iraq’s relations with its neighbors in recent years?

Strained, especially after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which startled Arab leaders who hadn’t expected a large Arab state to invade a smaller Arab neighbor. Still, Iraq’s frayed ties with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia--all of which joined the Desert Storm coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait--improved somewhat in the late 1990s. On the eve of the 2003 war, Iraq’s relations with Jordan, a generally pro-Western monarchy that declined to join the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition in 1991, remained reasonably cordial, experts said. Jordan, Syria, and Turkey were still receiving shipments of oil from Iraq in defiance of U.N. sanctions--an illicit trade that reportedly netted $2 billion for Saddam in 2000.

But Iraq’s relationship with Iran, its great Persian Gulf rival, remained deeply hostile. Kuwait is still awaiting the return of 600 prisoners of war seized during the 1990 invasion. And Israel, attacked with Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War and angered by Iraq’s payments to the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists, continued to regard Saddam as one of its most dangerous foes.

What was Iraq’s military capability on the eve of the 2003 conflict?

A shadow of its formidable former self, experts say. During its 1980s war with Iran, Iraq became the leading Arab military power, with an arsenal supplied by the Soviet Union, and had the world’s fourth-largest army. But Saddam’s showdown with the U.S. military during the 1991 Gulf War severely depleted his 1.2-million-troop force, leaving an estimated 380,000 soldiers at his command. Military and economic sanctions prevented him from rebuilding his army, and U.S. technology outpaced weaponry from Iraq’s erstwhile Soviet patron.

What is the state of Iraq’s economy?

Dire, despite the country’s massive oil reserves. The war against Iran left Iraq with more than $40 billion in debt, and Desert Storm severely damaged the transportation and power network and other elements of Iraq’s national infrastructure. Between 1991 and 2003, U.N. sanctions hobbled the already weak economy. The sanctions were imposed to pressure Saddam to surrender his suspected arsenal of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

The Baathist government ran Iraq’s inefficient major industries--oil, chemicals, textiles, and cement. Still, experts say, the country has considerable economic advantages that will help get it back on its feet, including impressive infrastructure, natural resources, and an educated workforce.

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