Cultural Heritage

Art and Architecture.

Iraqi art and handicrafts are essentially Arabic. Miniatures painted on camel bone or ivory, mosaic inlay work, as well as rugs, textiles, and copper and brass utensils, are produced for both the local market and the tourist trade.

One distinctive type of artistic work associated with Iraq is the silverware produced by the Mandeans (a people also known as the Sabeans). The Mandeans are a small religious sect whose beliefs require that they live close to running water. Their silverware is decorated with scenes or figures well known in Iraqi life and history. Iraq is also known for its distinctive embroidered rugs.

Iraq has many places of historical interest. The ruins of Ur, one of the world's first cities, is located in the southern part of the country. The ziggurat (Sumerian temple tower) at Ur is believed to date back to about 2500 BC. South of Baghdad are the remains of the Arch of Ctesiphon, an imposing palace that dates to about AD 225, as well as a re-creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the Baghdad suburb of Kadhimain stands a famously beautiful Shi'ite mosque (Muslim house of worship). Its two domes and four major minarets are covered with gold. .


Iraq was a center of Arab learning in the Middle Ages. Its literary achievements are part of the Arabic culture as a whole.


In April 2003, during the Iraq War, Iraqi president and dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown by American and British forces and their allies. Since that time, Iraq's government has been working toward establishing a democracy, temporarily under the administration of the United States. The current government is made up of an interim governing council, made up of 25 Iraqi leaders, under the supervision of the chief U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, with the goal of turning over all government functions to the Iraqis at the earliest possible date.


The land now known as Iraq has been called the Cradle of Civilization. The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians all developed great empires in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At later times, it was ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, and the Ottoman Turks.

Under the Abbasid rulers (750-1258), Baghdad became a center of learning for the entire Muslim world. But the Mongols invaded the region in 1258, leading to its decline. The Ottoman Turks, after a long struggle, won Baghdad and the Tigris and Euphrates Valley from Persia in 1638. The region remained a part of the vast Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, in 1918.

Creation of the Modern Nation.

After World War I, Great Britain was given control of the region as a mandate of the League of Nations (the forerunner of today's United Nations, or U.N.). The mandate period lasted from 1920 to 1932, when Iraq became an independent constitutional monarchy, under King Faisal I.

From the 1930's to the 1950's, Iraqi politics were dominated by Prime Minister Nuri es-Said, a pro-Western leader who did much to modernize Iraq. In 1945, Iraq became a founding member of the Arab League. However, in 1958 the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup led by General Abdul Karim Kassem. Nuri es-Said, King Faisal II, and all the members of the royal family were murdered, and Iraq was declared a republic. Kassem himself was murdered in 1963.

The Republic.

In 1968 the Baath Party seized power. Its first leader was Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. He was followed by Saddam Hussein, who came to power in 1979. Iraq's abundant oil revenues were used to develop the economy. But the government dealt harshly with its internal enemies and pursued an aggressive foreign policy.

Three Wars.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. Iraq's aim was to gain control of the Shatt al Arab waterway, and perhaps the Iranian oil fields as well. A long and costly war followed, ending in 1988 with no clear victor.

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded and quickly conquered its small but oil-rich neighbor Kuwait. The Iraqi action was condemned by the United Nations, and economic sanctions were imposed. When Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by the U.N. deadline of January 15, 1991, a coalition of nations, led by the United States, went to war against Iraq and quickly liberated Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein remained in power after the war, in spite of his defeat. By 2002, the United States had become intolerant of Iraq's failure to comply with the terms of the peace treaty. Congress gave the president the authority to use military force to remove Hussein from power if he refused to allow international weapons inspectors into Iraq. Later the United States persuaded the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution requiring Iraq to abandon its production of weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences." Iraq accepted the resolution and allowed U.N. weapons inspectors into the country. By early 2003, no operational weapons had been found. Nevertheless, the United States, convinced of their existence, began massing troops in the region.

On March 19, 2003 (March 20 in Iraq), the United States and its allies (primarily the United Kingdom and Australia) invaded Iraq in an effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The regime quickly fell when the troops seized Baghdad on April 9. The allies set out to establish a democratic government for the benefit of the Iraqi people as the international community discussed plans for rebuilding the country. Economic sanctions against the country were then lifted by the United Nations. After a prolonged manhunt, Hussein was finally captured on December 13 and held for trial.

On March 8, 2004, a temporary constitution was signed, establishing Iraq as a federal democracy. It was agreed that a provisional government would replace the governing council by June 30 and that general elections to select a new government would be held by the end of the year.

Reviewed by Arthur Campbell Turner
Coauthor, Power and Ideology in the Middle East