Iraq: People
From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge
Three school kids attend a class crammed in a desk designed for two at the Al-Thakfa al-Arabia (Arab Culture) elementary school in Saddam city in 1995. The struggling school is in a poor neighborhood of Baghdad. (Photo: Enric F. Marti/AP/WideWorld)
The great majority—nearly 80 percent—of Iraqis are Arabs. This population is split between the two great branches of Islam—Sunni Islam and Shi'i Islam. Most of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. Shi'i Islam is dominant in Iran and in southern Iraq. While Shi’ites in general make up nearly two thirds of Iraqi Muslims, they are less important politically than the Sunnis and usually belong to the country’s poorer classes.

The Kurds, who live in the mountains of the northeast, are the largest minority group. Inhabiting Turkey and Iran as well as Iraq, the Kurds have long sought their own independent state.

Language. Arabic is the national language of Iraq. The Kurds, who are non-Arabs, speak Kurdish. In some places, Assyrian and Armenian are also spoken.

Religion. Almost all Iraqis are Muslims, followers of the religion of Islam. About 4 percent of the population is Christian. There is also a small sect known as Yazidis whose religion combines Islam and earlier forms of worship. Thousands of Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel after that country was founded in 1948.

Iraqi school girl reads a school book with the portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on its cover. She and her friends are standing in the yard of the Dijla primary school in Baghdad in 1998. (Photo: Murad Sezer/AP/WideWorld)

Way of Life. Traditionally, most Iraqis earned their livelihood by farming or raising livestock. Farmers lived in villages, usually in houses made of sun-dried mud brick (much like the adobe used for buildings in the southwestern United States). Most produced only enough to meet their own families' needs. Wheat and other cereal grains, fruits and vegetables, and milk made up the typical diet. Meat, usually mutton (sheep) or lamb, was reserved for special occasions.

The nomadic Bedouins of Iraq’s desert regions herded livestock, particularly camels and goats. Now relatively few in number, the nomads travel well-known routes, seeking grazing land and water for their animals.

Although farming is still the single most-important occupation, less than one third of Iraq’s labor force is now engaged in farmwork. Large numbers of country people have moved to the cities, where more than two thirds of the population now lives.

The government provides all citizens with free medical care, education, and other benefits. Iraqi women, unlike women in many Muslim countries, can hold jobs, own land, and inherit property.

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