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Phoebe Marr: The Modern Iraq

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Iraqi national identity and ancient Mesopotamia,

Knowledge of this ancient civilization and its contributions was scant until the nineteenth century, when its remains were unearthed by archaeologists. UNtil the midtwentieth century, ancient Mesopotamian civilization was taught in Iraq -- if at all -- mainly as a distant phenomenon almost unrelated to the modern country. This gradually changed in the second half of the twentieth century, however, when Iraqi artists and poets began to draw on this heritage in paintings and literature, while the government turned its attention to propagating th emotion of a Mesopotamian heritage as an integral part of Iraqi tradition. Mesopotamian civilization is now firmly rooted in Iraqi consciousness, but in the early decades of the modern state it played a very small role. (Marr, p 4)

Iraqi national identity and Islam,

The Arab-Islamic conquest of the seventh century was the decisive event in shaping current Iraqi identity. Arabic eventually became the predominant language of Mesopotamia, while Islam became the religion of almost all the country's inhabitants. It is mainly to to the Islamic conquest of the seventh century that most Iraqis look for the source of their identity and the roots of their culture. (Marr, p 4)

The decline following the attacks by the Mongols,

It is this decline and its heritage of poverty, backwardness, and intellectual stagnation that is the central fact of Iraq's modern history. Although the Abbasid Empire is remembered as part of a glorious past, it is the centuries of stagnation that followed that shaped the environment and character of the early period of the Iraqi state. (Marr, p 5)

The third foremost legacy after those of ancient Mesopotamia and the Arab conquests,

Its institutions, political culture, and even the people it trained were what the British found when they occupied the country during the First World War. In patterns of government, inlay, and in the outlook and values of the urban classes, the Ottomans played a role in shaping modern Iraq second only to that of the Arab tribe and family. (Marr, p 5)

On the Ottoman Empire, religious tension and the birth of sunni dominance,

While the Ottoman establishment was sunni, it tolerated the shi'a -- at first. Unfortunately, these benefits were not to last, for two essential reasons. The first was the Ottoman-Persian conflict, which continued off and on until 1818. The wars created in the minds of the Ottomans a suspicion and fear of the shi'a or Iraq as prone to side with the Persians. Soon the Ottomans came to rely on the only element i the region they believed would support them -- the urban sunnis. During these long wars the seeds of sunni dominance in government were sown.

As the sunnis tightened their grip on the reins of power, the shi'a became alienated and naturally developed a counterfocus of their own. They strengthened their ties to Persia, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. These cities played a significant role in the conversion to shi'ism of the Arab tribes migrating into the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys south of Baghdad. By the end of the nineteenth century, Persian influence i the holy cities and in much of southern Iraq was strong. (Marr, p 6)

Growing Persian influence was a secondary factor in the collapse of Ottoman hegemony in Iraq -- internal issues were far more relevant,

As the seventeenth century began, direct administration in the river valleys ceased, and Iraq faced another long period of stagnation and neglect. In the north, new Kurdish dynasties were established in the mountains and valleys. In the center and south, there were great tribal migrations from the Arabian peninsula that reinforced tribalism. (Marr, p 6)

The restoration of Ottoman suzerainty,

This decline did not end until early in the nineteenth century, when direct Ottoman rule was gradually reimposed on the Iraqi provinces. In the south the shi'i cities of Karbala and Najaf were brought under the authority of the Baghdad government. In the Kurdish countryside the local dynasties were broken up one by one and made to accept Turkish rule. Even more important were the reforms brought into Iraq by Ottoman administrators. These began when Midhat Pasha was appointed to the governorship of Baghdad in 1869. His short tenure (1869-1872) marks the first concerted effort to build for the future. (Marr, p 6)

Concerning the restoration of centralized government,

The telegraph was introduced into Iraq in the 1860s, a steamship line on the Tigris in 1841. Cash cropping was introduced for the first time, as Iraq slowly began to move away from subsistence farming. Iraq's trade grew rapidly.

By 1905 the population had rised from 1.2 million in 1867 to 2.2 million. There was a striking change in the balance between the nomadic and settled populace. In the midnineteenth century, 35 percent of the population had been nomadic and only 40 percent rural. By 1905 the nomads had declined to 17 percent, while the rural population had risen to 60 percent. (Marr, p )

The state of Iraq began in 1920, carved from three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire and created under British aegis as a mandate. With a land area of 168,000 square miles (436,800 square kilometers) and a population of over 23 million in 2003, Iraq is the largest o the Fertile Crescent countries rimming the northern edge of the Arabian peninsula. Iraq forms a lowland corridor between Syria and the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

The southeastern portion of the country lies at the head of the Gulf. Iraq controls a thirty-six-mile (fifty-eight-kilometer) strip of Gulf territory barely sufficient to provide it with an outlet to the sea. From the Gulf, Iraq's border with Iran follows the Shatt al-Arab north, then skirts the Persian foothills as far north as the valley of the Diyala River, the first major tributary of the Tigris north of Baghdad. From here the frontier thrusts deep into the high Kurdish mountain ranges, following the Diyala River valley. Near Halabja it turns northward along the high mountain watersheds -- incorporating with Iraq most of the headwaters of the major Tigris tributaries -- until it reaches the Turkish border west of Lake Urmiyya. The mountainous boundary with Turkey ends at the Syrian border just west of Zakhu, Iraq's northernmost town. This northeastern region includes difficult and unmanageable mountain terrain and a substantial Kurdish population. The loss of control by the central government over substantial portions of this region in the 1990's made Iraq's northern borders with Turkey and Iran porous.

In the northwest the frontier separating Iraq from Syria meanders south across the Syrian desert from the Turkish border until it reaches the Euphrates near Qa'im. Here the borders make little pretense of following geography, jutting out into the adjacent desert and incorporating large areas of steppe. At the Euphrates the border turns west until it reaches Jordan, also a former British mandate, and then south a short distance to the Saudi frontier. From this point the border follows a line of water walls separating Iraq from Saudi Arabia until it reaches the Kuwaiti border at Wadi al-Batin, at which point it turns north again, forming a common frontier with Kuwait, until it reaches Umm Qasr on the Khaur And Allah channel leading to the Gulf. (Marr, p 9)

The Shatt al-Arab is a broad water-way with villages on its banks, lined with date groves. North of it is swampland,

To the north of the Shatt lies swampland, traditionally inhabited along the Tigris by marsh dwellers living in reed houses built on stilts and raising water buffalo, and along the Euphrates by rice-growing villagers. This natural wetland area, with high reeds and hidden waterways, has often functioned as a refuge for dissidents. A massive drainage system, constructed by the central government in the 1990s, has progressively dried up much of this terrain and is ending a traditional way of life. (Marr, p 10-11)