Q&A: Iraq Demystified: a Primer on Politics, History

The U.S. war in Iraq takes place in a region with a long and complicated history unfamiliar to many Americans. We asked experts on Iraqi politics and history to answer some basic questions.

How did Iraq come into being?

Iraq was born as a state in 1921, the product of Britain’s imperial needs. Although much of Iraq’s territory is the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the site of ancient Mesopotamia, few Iraqis are descendants of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Rather, they are a collection of immigrants and the offspring of conquest. When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the vast majority of Mesopotamians began to disappear into a gene pool fed by a series of conquerors. Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Byzantines came from the west. The Sasanian Empire of the Persians entered from the east. In the 7th century AD, Arab armies of Islam arrived from the south. Buyids, Seljuk Turks and the Mongols rode in from Central Asia. Finally, in the 16th century, what was once Mesopotamia, with its polyglot population, was swallowed by the Ottoman Empire.

The future of Mesopotamia was decided during World War I. In a series of secret treaties and understandings, Britain and France divided up the Arab Middle East. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British diplomats rolled out a map and drew the boundaries of what is now Iraq. The boundaries were determined by Britain’s interests in oil reserves and in protecting the gateway to India via the Persian Gulf. By 1925, three major groups of people -- Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and non-Arab Kurds, who sat on great pools of oil -- had been herded together into an improbable state. Thus was born the great challenge of governing Iraq.

-- Sandra Mackey, author of “The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein.”

How did Saddam Hussein come to power?

A poor boy from a tribal family near Tikrit, Hussein began his political career as a functionary in the Baath Socialist Party, whose ideology was rooted in socialism and Arab nationalism. After a series of military dictators failed to create an Iraqi government acceptable to the country’s mosaic of ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups, the party took control in 1968.

For the next decade, Hussein operated as a shadowy but powerful figure behind the president, Ahmad Hassan Bakr. He built the Baath Party’s security services, and he saw in Iraq’s enormous oil revenues the means with which to bind the contentious Iraqi population to the government. But Hussein was not content to play a subordinate role indefinitely. In July 1979, he literally walked through the blood of potential party rivals to declare himself sole leader of Iraq, a position he has held since.

-- Sandra Mackey

What were the issues fueling the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88?

The Iran-Iraq war was certainly aggravated by Hussein’s aggressive personality and his unbridled regional ambitions. But that was not its primary cause. The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 was a reaction by Hussein to the threat posed by the Iranian revolution. As early as June 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s militant Islamist regime in Tehran began publicly urging Iraqis to overthrow the secularist Baathists as a first step toward establishing an Islamic order throughout the region. Tehran escalated its campaign by extending support to Iraqi Kurds, and underground Shiite movements in Iraq and by terrorist attacks against Iraqi officials. These escalated by the spring of 1980 into border clashes.

The Iraqi economy was in a period of unprecedented prosperity fueled by oil exports. War would put at risk the nation’s ambitious domestic development programs. Ultimately, however, Hussein concluded that the only way to deflect the Iranian threat -- and to stay in power -- was to use force. In September 1980, his troops crossed into Iran, igniting what was to become one of the longest, bloodiest and costliest armed conflicts in the post-World War II era.

-- Efraim Karsh, professor, King’s College London, and author of “Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography.”

Which countries supported Iraq in that war?

As the war dragged on, the fear of an Iranian victory, with its attendant explosion of religious militancy across the Middle East, rallied widespread international support behind Iraq, with the most unlikely bedfellows doing their utmost to ensure that Iraq did not lose.

The Soviet Union, Iraq’s staunchest ally before the war, stayed neutral until Iran appeared to have gained the upper hand. Then it again supplied arms to Iraq. France, Iraq’s second-largest supplier of arms, continued its support. Even the United States, which had severed diplomatic relations with Iraq after the 1967 Six-Day War, supported the Iraqi war effort. In February 1982, Baghdad was removed from the U.S. government’s list of terrorist states and in December 1984, a newly opened U.S. embassy in Baghdad began supplying the Iraqi armed forces with much-needed military intelligence.

From 1984 onward, the U.S. also sought to compel Iran to accept a cease-fire by cutting off its weapons sources, although Washington eventually deviated from its own strategy and secretly sold arms to Iran in return for the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. The embarrassing exposure of this affair drove the U.S. to step up efforts to contain the war.

-- Efraim Karsh

Why did we go to war against Hussein in 1991?

Former President Bush once said he hated broccoli, prompting one wit to note that it was a good thing that Kuwait raised oil, not broccoli. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, oil and the fear that Hussein would hold the spigot catalyzed the U.S. into assembling an international coalition to expel the Iraqi leader from Kuwait. The first Bush administration pointedly avoided the “D” word -- democracy -- in rationalizing its decision to use force. Bush understood that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait opened up an opportunity to solidify a post-Cold War order in which the U.S. would benefit from a newly collegial U.N. Security Council. He supported his worldview with a brilliant exercise in diplomacy.

-- Augustus Richard Norton, professor at Boston University, is writing a book on religion and politics.

Why didn’t we get rid of him then?

While Washington’s official rhetoric pirouetted around the U.S. ban on assassinating foreign leaders, the Iraqi command authority was hit hard by coalition forces. But Hussein wasn’t directly hit. After the ground war, with much of Iraq in ruins and uprisings underway in the north and south, the Washington consensus was that Hussein could not possibly retain power. So much for Washington. Although we still do not know what back-channel messages were exchanged between Riyadh and Washington, there is no doubt that the Shiite-phobic Saudis were apoplectic at the thought of Iraq’s Shiite population dominating Iraq.

-- Augustus Richard Norton

What are Iraq’s oil holdings, and how might the war affect oil prices?

The government of Iraq owns the country’s proven oil reserves of 112 billion barrels. But Iraq’s oil infrastructure is in poor condition, and its capacity to produce has dropped 20% in the last decade. As falling prices in crude oil currently indicate, the market is much better able to accommodate the total loss of Iraqi production than would have been the case just six weeks ago -- owing to the buildup of alternative supplies from other countries and a fall in consumption, as cold weather gives way to spring in the United States and Europe.

-- Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of “The Prize.”

Why does Turkey feel threatened by the Kurds in northern Iraq?

Turkey fears that a successful Kurdish federal entity in northern Iraq with access to oil resources in Kirkuk would seek independence. That, in turn, might inspire Turkey’s Kurds, who live adjacent to Iraq, to seek autonomy or secede. Between 1983 and 1999, Turkey fought a civil war against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The party launched its terrorist campaign from bases in Iraq. Neither of the large Kurdish political groups in northern Iraq have fond feelings for the PKK, but they retain ill feelings for the Turks.

-- Henri J. Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University and former member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff from 1998 to 2000.

What are the basic issues of contention among Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites and Kurds in Iraq?

Since the British creation of modern Iraq, a Sunni Arab minority of 20% of the population and based in central Iraq has held sway over the Shiite Arab majority of 60%, spread over southern and central Iraq, and a Kurdish minority of 20% in the north. The major tension fueling problems between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites is political rather than ethnic or cultural. Both would like to rule. The Kurds are ethnically distinct, but most are part of the Sunni branch of Islam. Tensions between Arab Sunnis and Kurds stem primarily from the Kurds’ desire for autonomy.

At times, the ruling Sunni elite has had to rely on the Kurds to counter Shiite preponderance in Iraq, and has, on those occasions, made concessions in recognizing the Kurds’ distinct cultural and linguistic identity. But the ruling Sunni elite has also reneged on its promises whenever it felt secure in its grip on Iraq. The Baath party has uprooted entire Kurdish villages, settled Arabs in northern Iraq and used chemical weapons against the Kurds. The Shiites have some misgivings about the prospects of Kurdish autonomy. It remains to be seen what pact Sunnis and Shiites would be willing to offer the Kurds in a reunified Iraq.

-- Yitzhak Nakash is a professor at Brandeis University and author of “The Shi’is of Iraq.”

Do any countries in the region support United States action in Iraq?

Of the Arab countries, Kuwait is most supportive because it tasted Iraqi aggression and occupation in 1990. Other Arab governments are generally fearful of the consequences of the war, but, believing that conflict was inevitable, many opted to cooperate with the U.S. despite overwhelming popular opposition at home. Among those that have provided bases, logistical and other support are Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Assistance from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia has had a much lower profile.

Israel certainly supports the U.S.-led war against Hussein and would strategically benefit from the defeat of the Iraqi regime. But its help has been limited by the U.S. desire to separate the Arab-Israeli issue from the war with Iraq.

-- Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Stakes: America and the Middle East.”

Which countries are our best allies in the Middle East and which are most critical?

The closest, formalized strategic military relationship is between the U.S. and Israel. Turkey, as a member of NATO, is also a formal ally. U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in the Persian Gulf is in Bahrain. A significant number of American troops and equipment is in Kuwait. Qatar is increasingly important to the U.S. Air Force, and Saudi Arabia, especially its Prince Sultan Air Base, has been central to military strategy. Egypt has provided intelligence.

Significantly, Saudi Arabia has agreed to make up for lost Iraqi oil production caused by the war, pumping an additional 1.5 million barrels a day.

-- Shibley Telhami