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News ::
IRAQ (english)
02 Mar 2003
The Country
The Country


What are the key facts about Iraq?
Iraq is a large, oil-rich Arab state bordering on the Persian Gulf and ruled by Saddam Hussein, one of the world's most repressive dictators. It shares borders with Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and its population of 23 million is 60 percent Shiite, 18 percent Sunni Kurd, and 15 percent Sunni Arab. In recent decades, Saddam's ruling clique of minority Sunni Arabs has imposed a totalitarian police state in Iraq, and after a brutal eight-year battle with Iran in the 1980s and the U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, its economy is in tatters.

Was Iraq once a major center of world civilization?
Yes. What's now Iraq was the site of ancient Mesopotamia, the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that thousands of years ago gave rise to the flourishing cities of Ur and Babylon. As the seat of the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled a vast Muslim empire from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the present-day Iraqi capital, Baghdad, grew into a rich center of learning and architecture.

How did Saddam Hussein take power?
As a young man in the 1960s, Saddam was an active member of Iraq's Ba'ath Party, a far-left, revolutionary group that sought to establish Arab socialist states across the region. When the Ba'ath overthrew Iraq's military regime in 1968, Saddam's cousin, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, became president of Iraq and chairman of the new ruling Revolutionary Command Council. But experts say that even then Saddam wielded the real power in Iraq; as one of Bakr's deputies, he built a massive security network of spies and informers. Saddam formally took over in 1979. With the help of Sunni backers from his hometown, Tikrit, Saddam soon positioned himself as an unchallenged dictator and executed many of those who had supported his rise.

What kind of leader is Saddam?
He demands unwavering loyalty from his subjects, and to get it he tortures and kills potential foes, purges his army, and terrorizes even his closest deputies. For protection, he moves quickly and anonymously among his more than 20 palaces with only a small entourage; even his children often cannot pinpoint his whereabouts. Saddam sees himself as one of history's greatest leaders, a visionary destined to restore Iraq to its former glory. Experts say that although he claims to trace his lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad and has invoked Islamic themes more frequently since his Gulf War defeat, Saddam is not particularly religious and has generally ruled as a secular, far-left tyrant. His core objectives, Iraq watchers say, are to maintain his rule and to resist alleged U.S. attempts to dominate the Arab world. Experts say Iraqis overwhelmingly fear and hate him, although many Iraqis also resent outside attacks and sanctions.

What is Iraq's human rights record like?
Dreadful, human rights groups say, even compared to the troubling practices of other Middle East regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Though extreme measures such as torture are prohibited by Iraq's constitution, experts say that in practice, Saddam's whims go unchecked, and security forces and the dreaded Mukhabarat secret police are never held accountable for excesses. Dissenters are often executed publicly to terrify the larger population, with families of victims forced to watch and even cover the costs of the executions. In the 1970s and early 1980s, tens of thousands of majority Shiites were deported to Iran, and since then the Iraqi regime has murdered scores of Shiite leaders, as well as their families. In the 1988 Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi troops dropped deadly chemical agents including mustard gas, sarin, and possibly VX on the northern town of Halabja, killing thousands of civilians.

How are Iraq's relations with its neighbors?
Strained, especially since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which startled Arab leaders who hadn't expected a large Arab state to invade a smaller Arab neighbor. Still, Iraq's frayed ties with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia—all of which joined the Desert Storm coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait—have improved somewhat in recent years. Experts say Iraq's relations with Jordan, a generally pro-Western monarchy that declined to join the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, remain reasonably cordial. Jordan, Syria, and Turkey all still receive shipments of oil from Iraq in defiance of U.N. sanctions—an illicit trade that netted $2 billion for Saddam in 2000. But Iraq's relationship with Iran, its great Persian Gulf rival, has improved little since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990, still awaits the return of 600 prisoners of war. And Israel, which was pelted with Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War and which has bitterly protested Iraq's subsidies to the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists, continues to regard Saddam as one of its most dangerous foes.

What is Iraq's military capability?
A shadow of its formidable former self, experts say. During its 1980s war with Iran, Iraq became the leading Arab military power, with an arsenal supplied by the Soviet Union, and had the world's fourth-largest army. But Saddam's showdown with the U.S. military during the 1991 Gulf War severely depleted his 1.2-million-troop force, leaving him just 380,000 soldiers at his command. Military and economic sanctions prevent him from rebuilding his army. Moreover, what was once state-of-the-art weaponry from Iraq's erstwhile Soviet patron has long since been left behind by U.S. technology. Some experts consider Saddam's army to be a more immediate threat to his own citizens than to his neighbors. Indeed, Saddam's best troops—the Republican Guard, now largely clustered around Baghdad—are increasingly devoted to keeping the regime in power.

What is the state of Iraq's economy?
Terrible. Despite its underlying oil assets, Iraq's economy took devastating hits in the Iran-Iraq War, which left Iraq more than $40 billion in debt, and again in Desert Storm, which severely damaged its infrastructure. Since then, Saddam's defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and refusal to surrender his weapons of mass destruction have left his economy hobbled by U.N. sanctions. Iraq's major industries—oil, chemicals, textiles, and cement—are owned by the government and are inefficient. Still, the country has considerable economic advantages, including impressive infrastructure, natural resources, and an educated workforce. The U.N. oil-for-food program that began in 1996, which loosened the sanctions to permit limited oil sales in return for revenues targeted for humanitarian purposes, has helped alleviate some Iraqi poverty. Since 1999, Iraq has been allowed to export unlimited quantities of oil through the oil-for-food program, however Iraq watchers say Saddam has diverted some of the profits to rebuild his military capabilities.
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