HISTORY
What we know as Iraq today in ancient times was Mesopotamia, which witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations— Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramean, Babylonian, and Assyrian. Subsequently the region of Mesopotamia passed into oblivion and remained under the rule of Persian and Seleucid Dynasties for a few hundred years. The region came back into prominence with the advent of Islam. Muslim Arabs invaded Mesopotamia in 656 C.E. By 762 the Abassid Caliphate had established its center in Baghdad, which would become worldfamous as a center of political power, religion, knowledge, and the arts.
Baghdad remained a site of conflict for quite some time.
The area was dominated during the late 13th and early 14th centuries by the Black Sheep Turkmen, who were defeated by their adversaries, the White Sheep Turkmen, in 1446. The Turkmen were displaced by the Ottomans, who in 1534 incorporated this area into their empire, centered in Istanbul.
Britain gained control over Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In phases spread over nearly two decades, Iraq gained its freedom, ultimately emerging completely independent in the year 1932. On July 14, 1958, the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup, and Iraq became a republic.
The next 10 years or so were marked by conspiracies, political intrigues, and a series of coups. In 1967 the effects in the region of the Arab–Israeli conflict led Iraq to seek help from the Soviet Union. Shortly afterward, on July 17, 1968, in a highly dramatic and bloodless coup by the Baath Party, a secular socialist party (founded in Syria in 1942) placed General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (1914–82) in power.
The 1970s witnessed a period of stability for Iraq. In 1975 Iraq and its neighbor Iran agreed to iron out their differences and a boundary was drawn down the middle of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.
During this period there was also a semblance of rapprochement between the Kurds and Iraqi authorities, between whom there had been simmering conflict since the 1960s.
In 1979 Saddam Hussein (b. 1937) replaced Al- Bakr as president. An autocratic ruler, Saddam used intimidation and torture to secure his power. Meanwhile also in 1979, the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran. As a result relations between the two countries reached their nadir, and Iraq reignited the earlier dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The Iraqi government, which had heavy Sunni leanings, was apprehensive about an Iranian-style revolution (the Shia-majority seizing control) in Iraq.
Full-scale war broke out on September 22, 1980, when Iraqi forces entered Iran. The eight years of war that followed were gory and brutal. Many ships carrying oil and other provisions were destroyed on the waters of the Persian Gulf. Hostilities ceased in August 1988. In the eight years of war, Iraq’s economic burden escalated to more than US$100 billion.
As Iraq started to rise from the ashes, relations with neighboring Kuwait began to turn sour. In July 1990, Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of waging economic warfare against Iraq by trying to cut the price of oil artificially and of stealing oil from the Iraqi portion of an oil field located on the border between the two countries. Mediation by other Arab countries failed, and on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, assuming that the United States would not intervene.
Though the United Nations condemned the move, Iraq annexed Kuwait as its 19th province. Western countries, led by the United States, imposed a trade embargo on Iraq, and about half a million troops from 27 countries poured into Saudi Arabia as the diplomatic stand-off over Kuwait deepened.
Despite frantic attempts by international leaders to strike a deal, the January 15 deadline set by the United Nations for the withdrawal of troops passed without any movement on the part of the Iraqis. A series of Tomahawk cruise missiles (unleashed by the United States) signaled the onset of the Gulf War.
Allied (mostly U.S.) aircraft began a five-week bombing campaign over Iraq and Kuwait. The subsequent ground offensive lasted only 100 hours.
While there were relatively few casualties on the Allied side, the civilian and military deaths on the Iraqi side were somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000. A ceasefire was announced on February 28, 1991. The UN Security Council demanded the eradication of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD-development programs as a condition for lifting the UN sanctions.
Though there were some internal problems, including skirmishes with the Kurds and the Shiite Muslims, Iraq faded out of the focus of the world media until the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The United States attacked Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers shielded the perpetrator of the September 11 attacks, but soon Iraq emerged as a new target. Although UN inspection teams found little to indicate a weapons of mass destruction program, Washington believed otherwise.
The United States and its allies invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. The Iraqi forces capitulated. On April 9, 2003, U.S. forces took control of Baghdad, toppled Saddam’s statue, and brought his regime to an end. This incident brought in its trail a power vacuum, anarchy, and chaos.
As the transition to a new Iraqi government proceeded, fighting persisted, causing considerable destruction of property, death, and instability, despite efforts by U.S. forces to quell the insurgency.
An interim government took charge in June 2004, and in 2005 elections raised some hopes. Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar (? b. 1958) became president, Iyad Allawi (b. 1945) was chosen to be the prime minister, and Iraqi leaders struggled to write a constitution.
Meanwhile the U.S. occupation continued.

GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Iraq is located in the Middle East, bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Kuwait on the east, Turkey in the north, Syria and Jordan to the west, and Saudi Arabia on the west and south. The terrain consists primarily of broad plains and reedy marshes (along the borders with Iran and Turkey), and vast tracts of Iraq are desert.
Iraq experiences mild-to-cool winters with dry, hot, cloudless summers. However the northern mountainous regions experience cold winters with occasional heavy snowfall. The snow melts in early spring, sometimes causing floods in central and southern Iraq. The average temperatures in Iraq range from higher than 118°F in July and August to below freezing in January. The bulk of the rainfall occurs from December through April. It rains abundantly in the mountainous region, reaching an annual rate of more than three feet in some places.
During the summer months, weather is determined by two wind systems: the southern and southeasterly sharqi, a dry, dusty wind with occasional strong gusts, which occurs from April to early June and again from late September through November. The shamal, a steady wind from the north and northwest, begins to blow in mid-June and lasts until mid-September.
Shamal is accompanied by very dry air, which causes intense heating of the land surface but also provides some cooling effect. Dust storms often accompany these winds.

ECONOMY
Iraq’s economy is dominated by the oil sector, which provides about 95 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
The financial problems caused by massive expenditures in the eight-year war with Iran and the physical damage to oil export facilities compelled the government to adopt austerity measures, borrow heavily, and reschedule foreign debt payments. After hostilities with Iran ended in 1988, oil exports gradually increased with the construction of new pipelines and restoration of damaged facilities. But Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 brought international economic sanctions and ultimate intervention by an international coalition in 1991 that defeated Iraq and caused economic as well as social and political devastation.
In December 1999, the UN Security Council authorized Iraq to export as much oil as required to meet humanitarian needs. The drop in gross domestic product (GDP) between 2001 and 2002 was due to the global economic slowdown and lower oil prices. Per capita food imports increased significantly, while medical supplies and health care services steadily improved. Invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies in March–April 2003 resulted in the shutdown of sizable sections of the central economic administrative structure. From the year 2004 on, the rebuilding of oil, electricity, and other production has been progressing slowly, aided by the United States occupation and international grants but hampered by ongoing hostilities in the country.

CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Iraq is a country with a rich and varied cultural heritage.
Many important landmarks of the ancient and medieval world, including ruins, monuments, and museums, are situated around the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. These include Nineveh, the capital of King Assurbanipal I (r. 669–27 B.C.E.); the famous Sumerian city of Ur (third millennium B.C.E.); the birth place of Abraham, the desert city of Hatra, included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites; Assur, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom and site of the legendary Ishtar Temple; and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
Iraq also has a rich musical heritage. According to archaeological evidence, a large number of instruments were in use in the region as long as 3,000 years ago. Sumerians had evolved a music notation system 2,000 years ago.
Contemporary music in Iraq consists of a melody with rhythmic accompaniment. No harmony or chords accompany the highly ornamented melodies. Many pitches are “bent” or adorned with trills and glissandos (short secondary notes) to heighten a single straightforward pitch. This ornamentation gives the music a distinctly Middle Eastern feel in addition to having an emotional impact on the listener.
Complex rhythms and mixed meters are some of the salient features of this music.

CUISINE
Iraq’s cuisine is an amalgamation of diverse culinary styles—Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Ottoman, Persian, and Jewish, to name a few. Iraqi cooking uses some spices typical of Arabic cooking, namely saffron and mint. The commonly preferred meats in Iraq include lamb, beef, goat, mutton, and poultry. Muslims abstain from eating pork or its products. Some of the specialties include kebabs, quzi (stuffed and roasted lamb), kubba (minced meat with nuts, raisins, and spices), as well as masgouf (grilled fish). Flat bread (samoons) is present at every meal. For sweets and desserts, people eat fruit, rice pudding, sesame cookies, and baklava. Amba is an essential item of the typical Indian platter, and its popularity is evidence of the close trade and cultural links between Iraq and India; as a natural corollary, many other food items have passed from the subcontinent to Mesopotamia.
Coffee, tea, fruit juices, and soft drinks are the most common beverages. For Muslims alcohol is prohibited. A highly popular Iraqi condiment is amba (mango pickle).
During the first half of the 20th century, Jews were the single largest community living in Baghdad.
A good number of what are considered typical Baghdadi dishes are actually Jewish. Some classic examples are tabit (slow-cooked rice, tomato, and chicken, classically stuffed in sheep’s intestine), karil (rice, lentils, and yellow squash, often served with yogurt during the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Shavuot), salon (fish cooked with sweet peppers and tomatoes and generally served cold), and kuba shwandry (dumplings stuffed with meat and cooked with beets to give them a rich reddish-purple color).

BIRTH
The birth of a new child is a time of great rejoicing in the Iraqi Muslim community, since children are considered a sign of Allah’s compassion. Children are often referred to in Islam as “wealth.” Immediately after the birth, a baby is thoroughly washed in order to remove biological impurities. According to Islamic tenets, the first sound that a baby ought to hear should be the sacred name of Allah. This should be uttered by its father (or a male relative). The male relative whispers the call to prayer, or adhan, first into the child’s right ear and then into its left. The underlying idea is to make the child aware of Allah’s omnipresence and his power over the lives of mortals.
When the child is between three and seven days of age, its head is shaved to remove remaining natal impurities. On the day of purification, the child is also given a proper name. The local imam is often consulted in selecting the name. For a male child it is taken from among the numerous names for Allah and Muhammad; girls are often called Fatima, after Muhammad’s daughter.

COMING OF AGE
Male circumcision is a puberty rite, separating the boy from childhood and introducing him to his new status as an adult. In the Islamic countries where this procedure is followed, including Iraq, the boy undergoes the operation between the ages of 10 and 12. In Iraqi Muslim families the occasion is celebrated with a good deal of festivity, music, food, and many guests.

MARRIAGE
In Iraq most marriages are conducted in the traditional Muslim manner. The matches are created by agreement between the two sets of parents. However according to Islamic tenets, both the bride and the groom are free to refuse the spouse selected by their parents, guardians, or elders. Prior to the actual wedding the two families decide on a specific amount of money or articles in kind that the groom’s family must give to the bride. This sum of money is in reality security for the bride in case the marriage breaks up. As in all Islamic societies weddings in Iraq take place in the bride’s home.
The wedding rites are conducted by an imam, who also leads the prayers in the mosque. Iraqi tradition requires that, while the nikah (wedding contract) is being recited by the priest, the bride has to read the surat al fath (verse 48) from the Koran. The imam asks her whether she gives him permission to marry her to the groom upon payment of the specified amount. The Iraqi Muslim bride customarily wears a white dress for the wedding and puts her feet in water (symbolizing tranquility), while her kinsmen place in front of her a sufra, which consists of fruits, six candles, different types of sweets, bread and cheese (colloquially known as khubz al abbas), rice, honey, and yogurt. These items symbolize plenty and prosperity.

DEATH
All religions accept death as a part of human life.
Since death is unpredictable and can happen at any time, anywhere, Muslims are exhorted always to be prepared. When Muslims are faced with death, they are encouraged to recite prayers and declare their faith. Muslims believe that a baby who is born dead or stillborn must nonetheless have a name.
Muslims are taught to treat the dead body with gentleness and respect. In Iraq (as in all Islamic societies), it is customary for Muslims to ritually wash the dead body, perfume it, and drape it in a fresh new white cloth before burial. A dead person’s face is turned toward Mecca, the arms and legs are straightened out, and the mouth and eyes closed. The burial is supposed to take place as quickly as possible following death.