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Region now known as Iraq has a long, frequently bloody past

Iraq, the country the United States may soon face in war, is an unstable creation of Europeans that has little to do with the "cradle of civilization" that existed in the region 7,000 years ago.

"Two things you need to remember," says Charles Tripp, a British historian and author of "A History of Iraq." Point one: "It's a fairly new country, created by the British for their own purposes after World War I."

Point two: "Since its inception 80 years ago, there's been a question of whether there is such a thing as an Iraqi people. That's led to a quite bitter debate." And frequently a bloody one.

In fact, the irony of modern Iraq is that, whatever happens to Saddam Hussein, the country probably will continue with its present borders not because its people want that, but because its neighbors insist on it.

That would be a bittersweet fate for a region where the fertility of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers gave birth to civilization, first with cultivated crops and later with organized cities.

Over time, great civilizations, Romans, Persians, Turks, Kurds and Arabs, fought over parts of the region. Within the present borders of Iraq, many different people came to call the region home.

"This has always been a border between great empires, and also a center of empires," says Tripp.

The first such empire was the Sumer culture, which, several thousand years before Christ, was among the first—some historians say THE first—to develop writing, mathematics and the wheeled chariot. Its numbering system, based on 60, gave the modern world the count for hours and minutes.

Next came Babylon, known not only for its Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but also for the Hammurabi Code, which solidified the concept that punishment should fit the crime and not be an arbitrary whim of rulers.

Later, after the coming of Muhammad and Islam, Baghdad became the capital for the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled the eastern Muslim world, stretching at times from the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem through Saudi Arabia and Iran all the way to India.

In 1258, the Mongols swept in from the east, putting an end to the 500-year rule of the caliphate. Though they ruled for less than a century, Baghdad never again was a major center of power.

In the 1500s, the Ottoman Empire took over, and in the 1600s it divided the region into three provinces, each with its own people.

In the mountainous north were the Kurds, an ethnic group loosely connected with Russians and Caucasians of Eurasia. Though the Kurds are as Muslim as their neighbors, they have suffered bloody battles for centuries to maintain their culture.

The other two provinces were dominated by Arabs. They shared ethnic and language backgrounds, but were bitter enemies because of their different approaches to Islam.

In the central region were Arab Sunnis, members of the main Muslim sect. They lived in the desert and the fertile crescent of the two main rivers, with their capital at Baghdad.

The southern province, a land of dense marshes and empty deserts, was dominated by Arab Shiites, followers of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad who warred with other early leaders about who should replace the Prophet. They are exceedingly proud that Ali's tomb, a major pilgrimage for the Shiite faithful, is in the south-central Iraqi city of Najaf.

At the outbreak of World War I, the British poured troops into the region because they feared the Germans and their Ottoman allies might use the area to endanger Britain's domain in India.

When the war ended, Britain was in control, and a British bureaucrat in the Middle East, Arnold Wilson, decided to unite the three provinces "for administrative purposes" into a land called Iraq, an Arab word for "well-rooted."

As historian Margaret MacMillan noted in "Paris 1919," a book about the post-World War I peace conference that reshaped many national boundaries, "It never seems to have occurred to him that a single unit did not make much sense in other ways. In 1919, there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together."

The newly united Iraq had a majority of Arab Shiites. About 25 percent of the population was Arab Sunni, and practically the only thing the two groups could agree on was their desire to crush the nationalistic aspirations of the non-Arab Kurds, who formed about 15 to 20 percent of the population.

Eighty years later, the Kurds are still angry about the deal. "The British colonialists caused that partition against the will of our people," says Kani Xulam of the American Kurdish Information Network. "Our adversaries are like hungry wolves."

In 1920, the British, still devoted to the vision of Empire, received a formal mandate from the League of Nations to control Iraq. The next year, the Kurds and others rebelled, and the British tried to placate the masses by giving them a Muslim ruler, Faisal I, a Sunni Muslim born in Saudi Arabia and educated in Istanbul, Turkey.

The British thought they had a valuable property in the new Iraq. Though there were then no oil wells, experts guessed petroleum was there just as it was elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region. Oil rights in the country were held by the Turkish Petroleum Co., which was split among the British, French, Dutch and Americans.

In 1927, oil gushed out of Baba Gurgur No. 1 in the Kurdish region, so much so that it took 700 tribesmen eight days to get the well under control. Iraq went from backwater to wealthy nation, or, rather, those who controlled the oil became wealthy. Iraq, it turned out, had the second largest oil reserves in the world.

For the next three decades, the British poured money, bureaucrats and teachers into the fledgling country, but unity and stability remained tenuous. The kings were weak, manipulated alternately by the British and by Iraqi military leaders, who became increasingly nationalistic and anti-Western.

In 1958, military plotters led by Col. Abdul Karim Kassem assassinated the king and took over the country. From that point on, Iraq's rulers maintained control of the land with unmitigated brutality. Kassem began the tradition by bombing 1,000 Kurdish villages.

Those tactics inevitably created more enemies, and in 1963 Kassem was executed by a group of young officers who belonged to the Baath Party, a vehemently anti-Western party with a wing in Syria that believed all Arab countries should be united. In contrast to the Islamic hard-liners in other regions, the Baathists were secular and socialist.

Military officers dominated the party's leadership. "This was not a party like Westerners think of a party, reflecting the people's will," says R.K. Ramazani, a Mideast expert at the University of Virginia. "It was essentially a totalitarian, top-down party, an instrument of control."

One of the young Baath followers was Saddam Hussein, who was born into a Sunni tribe. His official biography boasts that when he was 22, he took part "in the revolutionary operation," an assassination attempt against a rival leader.

The Baathists briefly were ousted in a coup organized by other military officers, but by 1968 they were back in power, and in 1972 they nationalized the Western-dominated petroleum industry.

"Oil is not only money, but also power," says Abbas Alnasrawi, an Iraqi-born economics professor at the University of Vermont. "Whoever controls the oil has the power."

The Baathists allowed private business to work at the margins of society, but by controlling the main source of the nation's wealth, the government became the overwhelming force that has continued in power for three decades.

Saddam climbed quickly in the party and became a behind-the-scenes power. In 1979, he was named president. The next year, he went to war against Iran, citing a border dispute that had been dormant since the 1920s. He thought his foe was weakened after the fall of the shah.

As the war dragged on, Kurdish guerrillas sniped at Saddam's forces. The Baghdad leader didn't hesitate. In March 1988, his air force used poison gas against Kurdish strongholds, killing 5,000 civilians in the village of Halabja alone.

When the Iraq-Iran war sputtered to an end in a cease-fire after eight years, the losses were enormous. Experts estimate 200,000 to 500,000 Iraqis lost their lives, and perhaps another 450,000 to 850,000 were injured. Hundreds of thousands more were driven from their homes, and the country lost $65 billion in oil revenue.

Yet within two years, Saddam was at it again, invading Kuwait. U.S. troops crushed the occupation six months later.

"Saddam is a master of miscalculation," says Ramazani, the Virginia professor.

As Iraqi troops fled Kuwait ahead of the Americans, Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rebelled against Saddam. They thought they had the support of the United States. They didn't.

In the south, the rebels killed hundreds of Baathist officials. Saddam struck back savagely. Thousands of Shiites reportedly were executed, and vast stretches of marshlands where they had lived were drained and poisoned.

In the north, after bitter fighting, the Kurdish revolt succeeded, but only because the U.S.-instituted "no-fly zone" meant that Saddam's jets couldn't attack the area.

Even so, Saddam hung on to the two major cities in the Kurdish area, Mosul and Kirkuk, which were at the center of oil fields. Saddam moved tens of thousands of Arabs into the area, forcing the Kurds in those cities to flee to the Kurdish lands of the north.

For the past decade, 4 million or 5 million Kurds have lived outside Saddam's control. They have their own parliament, police, army and schools. Newspapers and Internet usage—tightly controlled in Saddam's regions—flourish in Kurdish lands.

After so many decades of animosity among the peoples of the region, most experts fear that a post-Saddam freedom would cause the Kurds and Shiites to fight to create their own nations.

Their prime opposition may not be other Iraqis, but outsiders.

"Their neighbors don't want it," says Tripp, the British historian. "Turkey, Iran and Syria have Kurdish problems, too, and they'd worry what their own Kurds would do. A new Shiite south would cause the Saudis and others to fear Iran moving in.

"So Iraq will have to stay together, even if the people don't want it."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030129 Iraq history