Iraq is divided into four land regions: the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley (the site of ancient Babylonia); the upper Tigris-Euphrates Valley (ancient Assyria); the mountains and hills of the northeast (inhabited by the Kurds); and the desert upland of the southwest and west.
The lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley is a poorly drained plain that begins just north of Baghdad, the capital, and reaches southward to the head of the Persian Gulf. There are several large, shallow lakes and a marsh area in the southern part of this region.
The upper Tigris-Euphrates Valley is made up of several fertile river valleys created by the Tigris River and its major tributaries. This steppe (grasslands) region is higher and much more hilly than the lower valley region.
The mountains of northeastern Iraq are a continuation of the Zagros Mountains of Iran. They are high and rugged, with peaks more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) high.
The western desert uplanda rather level, hard-surfaced plain—is part of the much larger Syrian desert. The Euphrates River cuts through this desert in a deep and flat-floored, steep-sided valley. The surface of the desert is marked by many wadis (river beds that are dry except during the rainy season). The desert area is uninhabited apart from the nomadic Bedouin tribes.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise in the mountains of Turkey. The Euphrates is considerably longer than the Tigris and flows across eastern Syria before it reaches Iraq. Near al Qurnah, in southern Iraq, they join to form the Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf. The Shatt al-Arab marks part of the boundary between Iraq and Iran. Navigation rights on the river have sometimes been a cause of friction. The Euphrates is generally rather shallow. The Tigris is deeper and is normally navigable (allowing the passage of ships) as far upstream as Baghdad.
The waters of the Tigris-Euphrates system are the lifeblood of the country. But historically the rivers have at times caused great destruction. Their waters rise regularly in spring and early summer, flooding vast areas of the lower valley each year. Because the lower Tigris-Euphrates plain is so poorly drained, much potential farmland cannot be used. In addition, nearly half the land lies idle each year because of excessive salt in the soil.
The Iraqi government has been using some of its income from oil to develop the Tigris-Euphrates area in order to increase the amount of cropland and lessen the danger of floods. The rivers have been brought under control by a system of dams, spillways, and storage reservoirs.
Iraq receives little rainfall except in the high mountains of the northeast. The entire southwestern part of the country is tropical desert, receiving less than 10 inches (250 millimeters) of rain a year. The climate in the northeastern part, except in the mountains, is semi-arid, with a rainfall of between 10 and 20 inches (250 and 500 millimeters). The summers (May through October) are dry. Winter (November through April) is the rainy season, when grains such as barley and wheat are grown on the steppe without irrigation. These crops are harvested in the spring or early summer. Crops grown in the desert and in the steppe during the summer must be irrigated.
Temperatures in summer are very high. The average temperature in July, the hottest month, is between 86 and 95°F (30 and 35°C). Nights are cooler but still hot. In the winter temperatures vary from about 45°F (7°C) in the north to about 55°F (13°C) in the south. Winter days are usually warm and pleasant, but winter night temperatures often come close to freezing.
The natural vegetation of Iraq consists mainly of wild oak, hawthorn, willow, and pine trees. Iraq’s only forests are in the mountains. Because of the overcutting of trees, these forests have been largely reduced to scrub growth of little value, although there has been some reforestation. Steppe grass and desert scrub provide food for livestock.
Iraq has some of the largest petroleum reserves in the world. Some of the richest deposits are found in the south in the Rumelia oil field, which Iraq shares with Kuwait. Iraq also has considerable amounts of phosphate rock (used in making chemical fertilizers), sulfur, and natural gas. Rivers provide water for irrigation and are a source of hydroelectric power. The country also has large thermal and natural-gas power plants.
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