International Relations Iraq: Past and Present
Metin Atmaca
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0201


Since the emergence of the earliest human settlements in history, Iraq (known as “Mesopotamia” in Greek) has played a decisive role in the Middle East. Iraq and its greater hinterland is often called “the Fertile Crescent” as it has fertile lands located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. It is also aptly called “the cradle of civilization” because of the earliest foundation of cities as well as some of the most important inventions, such as writing and the creation of laws. Besides these references, the land was named “Iraq” before the Islamic conquest. Although the meaning of the term Iraq remains obscure, some claim it is a reference to the country’s ancient name Araqi, meaning “on the land of the sun,” while others believe that the name of the country is the Arabized version of Irah, which means “sea coast” or “riverside” in the ancient languages of the region. One of the greatest empires, the Abbasid, was established in Baghdad and established its realm from western China to the tip of northwest Africa. Iraq remained a disputed land between the Ottomans and Safavids throughout the 16th and 17th centuries due to its strategic position on trade routes spanning the Mediterranean to Central Asia. Iraq was considered crucial by the British on their way to India and thus was jealously protected from other European powers, such as France, Germany, and Russia. Rich with its oil resources, Iraq was occupied by the British in 1914 and after World War I was under the leadership of King Faisal, while the mandate system was established and remained in place until 1932. Afterward, the Kingdom of Iraq became formally independent and was accepted into the League of Nations. In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown by a military coup led by Abd al-Karim Qasim and Abd al-Salam Arif. Saddam Hussein obtained the presidency in 1979. The following year, he declared war on Iran, a conflict which came to an end in 1988. On 1 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and by the beginning of 1991 an international coalition led by the United States launched a military campaign against Iraq and liberated Kuwait. Once the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed and he was captured by the end of the same year and was executed in 2006. In January 2005, the first elections took place to form a government that would draft a new constitution. After eight years of occupation, the US government decided to end its presence in Iraq. In June 2014, Islamic State captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the leader of the group proclaimed himself the worldwide caliph. Beyond its historical significance and meaning, the country is strategically located on the crossroads between the Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, and Persian worlds. With its Shiʿa and Sunni population Iraq represents the frontier of a land of transition between the two largest sects of Islam. The population of Iraq is divided between ethnic communities with Arabs making of 75–80 percent, Kurds making of 15 percent, and the rest consisting of Assyrians, Turkomans, and other small minorities such as Armenians, Circassians, Yazidi Kurds, Shabakis, and Iranians. Iraq is also a religiously diverse country with a population that is 95 percent Muslim and 5 percent of Christian, Yarsan, Yezidi, and Mandean. The percentages of Shiʿa and Sunni populations are 65 and 35 percent, respectively.

General Overviews

General and introductory studies in the West have appeared since the Gulf War of 1991. There are several excellent overviews of the country. Marr 2012 and Tripp 2007 are the best survey books on modern history of Iraq. Dawisha 2013 is focused on the modern period as well, but it presents a history of state governance, development of democratic institutions, and the creation of a national identity. Based on the long-term expertise and the knowledge of the greater Middle East, Polk 2006 starts from the time of ancient Iraq and continues to the US invasion in order to allow the reader to comprehend the complicated past of this nation.

  • Dawisha, Adeed. Iraq: A Political History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    One of the best works on the historical development of state structure and political identity in Iraq.

  • Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2012.

    A comprehensive account of modern Iraqi history written for general readers and students of Middle Eastern history. Focuses on the formation of national identity, economic development, and social change.

  • Polk, William R. Understanding Iraq. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

    Written by a long-time expert on the Middle East, this highly readable work provides the turning points in the history of Iraq from the first Sumerian settlements, the arrival of Islam, invasion of Mongols, long administration of the Ottomans, to the unsettled 20th century and the post-American invasion administration.

  • Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511804304

    An accessible and excellent survey of Iraq’s history from the advent of the Ottomans until the American invasion.

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