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Iraq - History of Conflict
Special Report

IRAQ 2002

Population: 17.9 million (1991 estimate)

Capital: Baghdad

Language: The official language is Arabic, which is spoken by about 80% of the population. Around 15% speak Kurdish. Turcoman, Armenian, Armenian and Persian are also spoken.

Religion: Sunni and Twelver Shia Islam (95%), other religious groups are Christian (3.5%) and Yazidi (1.4%). The regime that came to power in 1968 was dominated by members of the Sunni sect. About a quarter of the Muslims are Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims. Three quarters of the Muslims are Arabs.

Shia Muslims form 52% of the total Muslim population, and 70% of the Arab Muslim population. The south of Iraq is populated mainly by Shia Muslims, and the centre, west and north of Iraq are mainly Sunni. Twelver Shia Islam is the state religion of Iran.

Ethnic groups: Arab (72%), Kurds (23%), and the remaining 5% consist of Turcomans, Assyrians, Armenians, and other smaller ethnic groups. The Kurds are mainly based on the north and the north-west of the country.

Recent history

In 1920 the territory of Iraq was placed under a League of Nations' mandate, administrated by the UK. Britain provided the country with a constitution and a bicameral legislature, and put in place King Faisal, the son of Sharif Husain of Mecca. A 25 year Treaty of Alliance was signed between Britain and Iraq. On 3 October 1932 the British mandate ended and Iraq was established as an independent state. Britain retained military bases there and continued to exercise strong political and military influence in the country. Britain also ensured that a concession for oil exploration and exploitation was given to the Iraq Petroleum Company, a conglomerate of British, French and US interests.

King Faisal I died in 1933 but the regime under King Faisal II continued to be pro-British The Baghdad Pact was signed in 1955, which was an agreement on collective regional security, urged upon Iraq by the British.

A military revolution overthrew King Faisal II on 14 July 1958, and a left-wing nationalist regime under the leadership of Brigadier Abd al-Karim Kassem came to power. Iraq withdrew from the Baghdad Pact in 1959. Kassem was assassinated in 1963. A bloody and violent Ba'thist Arab nationalist regime under Colonel Abd as-Salem Muhammed Aref resulted. He was succeeded by his brother, Abd ar-Rahman Muhammed Aref in 1966.

The Ba'athist Revolution of 1968

The foundations of the modern regime in Iraq were laid with the seizure of power by the Arab Renaissance (Ba'ath) Socialist Party on July 17 1968. Major General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr became President and Prime Minister of Iraq, his deputy was Saddam Hussain.

The regime undertook wide-ranging social and economic reforms to try and increase its popularity. It nationalised the Iraqi Petroleum Company and was bolstered by rises in oil prices in 1972 and 1974, following the Arab-Israeli war.

In March 1970 an agreement was reached between the government and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), over the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish area. However, it quickly became clear that the promises made in this 'March Manifesto' would not be fulfilled. Conflict broke out between the Kurds and government's armed forces in the spring of 1974. The Kurds were supported by the Shah of Iran, who was concerned about what he saw as Soviet influence over the Iraqi regime. Jordanian intervention led to the signing of the Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq in March 1975. Iran closed its border with Iraq which led to the collapse of the Kurdish military force. Kurdish resistance was violently repressed, villages were destroyed and their inhabitants resettled in specially constructed villages surrounded by barbed wire and fortified posts.

The Rise of Saddam Hussain

The economic strength of the regime in the late 1970s led to a concurrent rise in its political strength. The Ba'ath party itself lost influence and real power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of Saddam Hussain and his political backers. The party increasingly became an instrument of the state.

In July 1978 a decree was passed which made any non-Ba'thist political activity illegal and membership of any other political party punishable by death for all members or former members of the armed forces.

President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr announced his resignation, and the handover of power to Saddam Hussain, on 16 July 1979. Huge oil revenues enabled Saddam to spend large sums on welfare and building projects, and living standards improved due to the expanding economy. Saddam Hussain concentrated on creating his own personality cult; portraits and statues of him were built all over the country. The Republican Guard - the elite presidential security force - was also formed in this period.

The Iran/Iraq War

Relations with Iran seriously deteriorated in the period following the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. Cross-border incidents resulted in Iraq invading Iran and in a full outbreak of war on 22 September 1980. Massive losses were experienced by both sides and in 1986 a stalemate was reached.

Iraq was supported by its Arab neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and by the US, the Soviet Union and France.

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 598, calling for an end to the war, on 20 July 1987. It was not accepted by Iran, who launched a further attack on northern Iraq in the spring of 1988. The Iraqi air force responded with poison gas, causing 5,000 civilian deaths in Kurdish northern Iraq. Iran finally agreed to a cease-fire in July 1988.

The Iran/Iraq war resulted in an estimated 400,000 deaths (roughly 1/4 Iraqi and 3/4 Iranian), and around 750,000 people were injured.

Despite large foreign debts and damaged infrastructure, the Iraqi regime was actually strengthened militarily by the war with Iran. Military production had increased significantly, and the army had also increased in size, to a total force of around one million. This consolidated Saddam Hussain's grip on power.

The Gulf War

By the late 1980s Iraq was experiencing an economic crisis, largely caused by misguided economic reforms. $5bn a year had been allocated to military re-armament projects. Inflation and the cost of living were rising dramatically.

Iraq's relations with its neighbours declined, particularly when Saddam laid claim to the Rumaila oilfield that ran from Iraq into northern Kuwait. On August 2 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. On August 8 Iraq announced its annexation of Kuwait.

The UN Security Council quickly passed a series of resolutions condemning Iraq's actions. Murders and abuses of Kuwaitis by Iraqi troops were prevalent. Iraq was backed politically by the PLO, and also, rather hesitantly, by Jordan. Forces from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Britain, France, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the US began gathering in Saudi Arabia. Iraq did not receive military support from any state. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 678, authorising military force to be used against Iraq, at the end of November 1990.

On 17 January 1991, the allied forces began their aerial bombardment of Iraq. The Iraqi army surrendered in large numbers on February 23 and 24. The US declared a cease-fire on February 28 1991 and the Gulf War was over.

Immediately after the Gulf War, the UN began carrying out its programme of dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Weapons inspection teams were set up to make regular visits to Iraq to see that it was complying with the terms of the UN ceasefire resolutions.