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Iraq Demystified: a Primer on Politics, History

March 23, 2003

The U.S. war in Iraq takes place in a region with a long and complicated history unfamiliar to many Americans. We asked experts on Iraqi politics and history to answer some basic questions.

How did Iraq come into being?

Iraq was born as a state in 1921, the product of Britain's imperial needs. Although much of Iraq's territory is the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the site of ancient Mesopotamia, few Iraqis are descendants of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Rather, they are a collection of immigrants and the offspring of conquest. When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the vast majority of Mesopotamians began to disappear into a gene pool fed by a series of conquerors. Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Byzantines came from the west. The Sasanian Empire of the Persians entered from the east. In the 7th century AD, Arab armies of Islam arrived from the south. Buyids, Seljuk Turks and the Mongols rode in from Central Asia. Finally, in the 16th century, what was once Mesopotamia, with its polyglot population, was swallowed by the Ottoman Empire.

The future of Mesopotamia was decided during World War I. In a series of secret treaties and understandings, Britain and France divided up the Arab Middle East. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British diplomats rolled out a map and drew the boundaries of what is now Iraq. The boundaries were determined by Britain's interests in oil reserves and in protecting the gateway to India via the Persian Gulf. By 1925, three major groups of people -- Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and non-Arab Kurds, who sat on great pools of oil -- had been herded together into an improbable state. Thus was born the great challenge of governing Iraq.

-- Sandra Mackey, author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein."

How did Saddam Hussein come to power?

A poor boy from a tribal family near Tikrit, Hussein began his political career as a functionary in the Baath Socialist Party, whose ideology was rooted in socialism and Arab nationalism. After a series of military dictators failed to create an Iraqi government acceptable to the country's mosaic of ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups, the party took control in 1968.

For the next decade, Hussein operated as a shadowy but powerful figure behind the president, Ahmad Hassan Bakr. He built the Baath Party's security services, and he saw in Iraq's enormous oil revenues the means with which to bind the contentious Iraqi population to the government. But Hussein was not content to play a subordinate role indefinitely. In July 1979, he literally walked through the blood of potential party rivals to declare himself sole leader of Iraq, a position he has held since.

-- Sandra Mackey

What were the issues fueling the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88?

The Iran-Iraq war was certainly aggravated by Hussein's aggressive personality and his unbridled regional ambitions. But that was not its primary cause. The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 was a reaction by Hussein to the threat posed by the Iranian revolution. As early as June 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's militant Islamist regime in Tehran began publicly urging Iraqis to overthrow the secularist Baathists as a first step toward establishing an Islamic order throughout the region. Tehran escalated its campaign by extending support to Iraqi Kurds, and underground Shiite movements in Iraq and by terrorist attacks against Iraqi officials. These escalated by the spring of 1980 into border clashes.

The Iraqi economy was in a period of unprecedented prosperity fueled by oil exports. War would put at risk the nation's ambitious domestic development programs. Ultimately, however, Hussein concluded that the only way to deflect the Iranian threat -- and to stay in power -- was to use force. In September 1980, his troops crossed into Iran, igniting what was to become one of the longest, bloodiest and costliest armed conflicts in the post-World War II era.

-- Efraim Karsh, professor, King's College London, and author of "Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography."

Which countries supported Iraq in that war?

As the war dragged on, the fear of an Iranian victory, with its attendant explosion of religious militancy across the Middle East, rallied widespread international support behind Iraq, with the most unlikely bedfellows doing their utmost to ensure that Iraq did not lose.

The Soviet Union, Iraq's staunchest ally before the war, stayed neutral until Iran appeared to have gained the upper hand. Then it again supplied arms to Iraq. France, Iraq's second-largest supplier of arms, continued its support. Even the United States, which had severed diplomatic relations with Iraq after the 1967 Six-Day War, supported the Iraqi war effort. In February 1982, Baghdad was removed from the U.S. government's list of terrorist states and in December 1984, a newly opened U.S. embassy in Baghdad began supplying the Iraqi armed forces with much-needed military intelligence.

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