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Iraq Overview

Iraq is often considered the cradle of civilization. Some of the earliest known civilizations emerged from the Tigris and Euphrates river valley. In the Islamic era Baghdad was founded and grew into a renowned cultural stronghold that connected the Mediterranean traditions of the west with the Persian and Indian traditions of the east. In the 20th and 21st centuries Iraq has suffered under invasions and ethnic and sectarian strife.

During WWI British forces captured Baghdad in 1917 from the then ruling Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the state of Iraq, under the British mandate was formed with little recognition of Iraq’s differing ethnic and religious communities. As Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite communities fought for independence,  the British turned to the Sunni minority, granting them government appointments. The independent Kingdom of Iraq was established with the blessing of the British in 1932. The British installed a WWI ally- a Hashemite King as the country’s ruler. Over next few years, numerous military coups were attempted. In 1941, a Axis supporter, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, successfully overthrew the King, forcing the British to invade. A British military re-instated the Hashemite Kingdom and occupied Iraq until 1947. A series of coup d’etats from 1958 to 1968, eventually led the Arab Socialist Baath Party to power. In 1979, Saddam Hussein seized control over the party and the country.  

Saddam Hussein espoused a secular, nationalist and  pan-Arab ideology, and soon clashed with Iraq’s neighbor Iran, which had experienced an Islamic Revolution. Claiming that he was protecting the Arab world from a Shi’ite revolution, Hussein declared war on Iran and gave support to  the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), which has since taken responsibility for numerous attacks against Iran. The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight long years and devastated both countries. Iraq was also reported to have used chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and committed atrocities against the Kurdish civilians in Iraq, supposedly for their support of Iran in the Al Anfal campaign.  

After the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq claimed Kuwait was illegally slant drilling on Iraqi territory. In August 1990, Iraq invaded and successfully occupied Kuwait. The United Nations Security Council attempted to convince Iraq to leave Kuwait with diplomacy and economic sanctions. After failed economic sanctions, the United Nations voted unanimously for military actions against Iraq. Under the leadership of the United States and United Kingdom, a coalition of thirty four nations drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. By April the next year, Kuwait’s sovereignty had been re-instated and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 passed, which established reparations and sanctions against Iraq.

After the war, the Iraqi government violently quelled uprisings of the Shi’ite and Kurdish Iraqis. It is reported the the PMOI helped the Iraqi regime commit these massacres, in exchange for resources to oppose the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the next decade an uneasy status quo remained in place. American and British aircraft controlled the airspace of two thirds of Iraqi airspace, while an international sanctions regime paralyzed the Iraq’s economy.

On March 20, 2003 an American-led coalition force invaded Iraq, unseating Sadaam Hussein in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although Hussein’s removal initially elicited optimism from many Iraqis, the ensuing power vacuum plunged the country into a cycle of violence. Communal violence, widespread criminality, acts of terrorism and coalition military operations killed many Iraqis. Estimates of civilian casualties range from 100 thousand to over 600 thousand since the invasion.

Without the Hussein regime to hold it together, the centripetal force of Iraq’s history of communal conflict began to tear the country apart. The Shiites, an oppressed majority under the Sunni Baath Party, formed militias in the post-invasion period to counter Sunni militants. Bombings and summary executions were used by both sides in targeting each other’s civilian power bases.

The nature of the Sunni insurgency changed enormously over the first several years of conflict, with radical Islamic groups assuming leadership as the ex-military cadre of fighters withered away. Over time guerilla warfare was largely replaced with terrorist tactics, designed to undermine the morale of Iraqi civilians rather than attack Coalition troops directly. The use of this strategy peaked between 2005 and 2007, as the insurgency’s targeting of civilians inadvertently turned the tide of public opinion against it.

This shift in sympathy swelled the ranks of government-sponsored counter-insurgency militias, known as the Sunni Awakening, and coincided with the American “surge” of 20,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq over the course of 2007. These combined factors provided government forces some room in which to consolidate their power, and violence has decreased steadily since 2008.

Pressure from Iraq’s government, and within the U.S.  has resulted in a steady reduction of the American military presence in Iraq. As of August 19th, 2010 all U.S. combat forces were withdrawn from the country, officially bringing Operation Iraqi Freedom to an end. Fifty thousand American military personnel were to remain in Iraq in training and advisory roles.

Although the intensity of the conflict has decreased considerably over the past three years, there are still questions to be answered. It remains to be determined whether the predominately Shiite Iraqi authorities will take steps to preserve cultural pluralism, or perpetuate the marginalization of the Sunni minority.