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Middle East, Iraq

Iraq, officially the Republic of Iraq (Al Jumhuriyah al-‘Iraqia in Arabic), country in southwestern Asia. Some of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations—Assyria, Babylonia, and Sumer—developed in the area that now makes up Iraq. The modern state of Iraq was created in 1920 by the British government, whose forces had occupied it during World War I (1914-1918). Baghdad is the country’s capital and largest city.

Iraq is situated at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf. Its coastline along the gulf is only 30 km (19 mi) long. Its only port on the gulf, Umm Qasr, is small and located on shallow water, and only small craft can dock there. Thus, the country is nearly landlocked.

Iraq is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It contains enormous deposits of petroleum and natural gas. It is endowed with large quantities of water, supplied by its two main rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and their tributaries. Iraq’s location between those two great rivers gave rise to its ancient Greek name, Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers”).

Most of Iraq’s population is Arab. Since its inception as a modern state in 1920, Iraq has been politically active in the Arab world, with most of its regimes trying to advance pan-Arab or partial Arab political unification under Iraqi leadership. The country has had tense relations with its eastern neighbor, Iran, resulting in a costly war in the 1980s. At times it has claimed neighboring Kuwait, most recently in 1990, leading to the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Iraq was involved in all the Arab-Israeli wars except the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Set up as a monarchy, Iraq became a republic in 1958. It has been a dictatorship dominated by a single party since 1968. That dictatorship has been under the control of Saddam Hussein as president since 1979. Under his leadership, Iraq’s regional and foreign policies have been ambitious, often involving great risk. In the late 20th century Iraq attained a high international profile, unprecedented in the modern history of the Middle East, but at an exorbitant political price. The dictatorship failed in various attempts to topple Arab regimes and to achieve leadership status in the Arab world or even in the Persian Gulf region. It failed in eight years of war in the 1980s to bring down the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It conquered Kuwait in 1990 but was forced to relinquish it by a coalition of Western and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf War. Afterward, it found itself shackled by an international oil embargo and other limitations on its sovereignty.

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