Iraq: History
From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge
This stone pillar originally stood in the town of Babylon. It depicts Hammurabi, the 6th king of Babylonia. (Photo Courtesy of
Early History. The land now known as Iraq has been called the Cradle of Civilization. The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians all developed great empires in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At later times, it was ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, and the Ottoman Turks.

Under the Abbasid rulers (750-1258), Baghdad became a center of learning for the entire Muslim world. But the Mongols invaded the region in 1258, leading to its decline. The Ottoman Turks, after a long struggle, won Baghdad and the Tigris and Euphrates Valley from Persia in 1638. The region remained a part of the vast Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, in 1918.

Creation of Iraq. After World War I, Great Britain was given control of the region as a mandate of the League of Nations (the forerunner of today’s United Nations, or UN). The mandate period lasted from 1920 to 1932, when Iraq became an independent constitutional monarchy under King Faisal I.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Iraqi politics were dominated by Prime Minister Nuri es-Said, a pro-Western leader who did much to modernize Iraq. In 1945, Iraq became a founding member of the Arab League. However, in 1958 the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup led by General Abdul Karim Kassem. Nuri es-Said, King Faisal II, and all the members of the royal family were murdered, and Iraq was declared a republic.

The Republic. Between 1958 and 1968 there were several violent changes of government. Kassem himself was murdered in 1963. In 1968 the Baath Party seized power and has held it ever since, under only two leaders—Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein, who came to power in 1979. Iraq’s abundant oil revenues were used to develop the economy and to build new schools, hospitals, and other facilities. But the government dealt harshly with its internal enemies and pursued an aggressive foreign policy.

Two Wars. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. Iraq’s aim was to gain control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and perhaps the Iranian oil fields as well. A long and costly war followed, ending in 1988 with no clear victor.

Two years later, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded and quickly conquered its small but oil-rich neighbor Kuwait. The Iraqi action was condemned by the UN, and economic sanctions were imposed. When Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991—the deadline set by the UN—a coalition of nations, led by the United States, went to war against Iraq and quickly liberated Kuwait.

After the war, Iraq was faced with rebellions by Shi’ite Muslims in the south and by Kurds in the north. Both groups were crushed by the military. Saddam Hussein, in spite of his defeat and the destruction caused by the war, managed to hold on to power. The UN continued to impose restrictions on Iraq because Hussein refused to cooperate with its arms inspectors. But, despite intermittent U.S. air strikes against Iraqi military targets, the anti-Iraq coalition slowly began to fall apart.

John R. Randall, Ohio State University
Reviewed by Arthur Campbell Turner: Author, Power and Ideology in the Middle East

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