In ancient times Iraq was better known as Mesopotamia and has long since held the title as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’. That civilisation came about largely because of what is known as the Fertile Crescent, a geographical area of land defined by the country’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.
Around 4000 BC Sumeria was the first major civilisation to arise; they built an irrigation system and developed the cuneiform style of writing. The Sumerians lasted a remarkably long time, only really being challenged in the 24th Century BC by the Akkadians from which Babylon arose in 1894 BC. There were two Nebuchadnezzars and it was the second one who reigned between 605 – 563 BC who is credited with constructing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He also destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple around 587 BC.
There followed the Assyrians, Achaemenids, Seleucids, Parthians and, of course, the Romans. In the 3rd Century AD the Sassanids became the major players and in 634 AD the first Muslim attacks began and 30 years later the Rashidun Caliphate covered most of the current day Gulf states and across into North Africa.
The next great invasion of the country was by the Mongols; they laid siege to Baghdad for 12 days in early 1258 and quickly sacked the city. But it was the Ottomans who were the longest lasting of modern conquerors. They took control around 1533 and were to retain control until the end of the First World War, in 1918.
At the start of the First World War the Ottomans decided to sign up for the wrong side, joining the Central Powers, and found themselves being attacked from all sides. The British invaded Mesopotamia and, after an early defeat at the Siege of Kut, they captured Baghdad in 1917 and started the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. In the post-war period the British and their allies carved up chunks of the Middle East in such a way that would lead to conflict throughout the rest of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.
In Iraq, the main mistake was to split up the region through the Sykes-Picot Agreement which left the region largely occupied by Kurds divided across Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The new country that emerged after the First World War became a Hashemite monarchy imposed on Iraq by the British.
King Faisal I became, at first, the King of Greater Syria before becoming King of Iraq on 23rd August 1921. Despite the enthronement of King Faisal, the British Mandate only officially ended in 1932. The Hashemites ruled Iraq until July 1958 when King Faisal II was assassinated in a coup d’état known as the 14th July Revolution.
The coup leader Colonel Abd al-Karim Qasim seized power immediately and established the Republic of Iraq and ended the monarchy.
As it turned out Qasim’s rule was to be short lived; the 8th February Revolution in 1963, sometimes called the Ramadan Revolution led to the overthrow and murder of Qasim and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party took over under the leadership of General Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr and Colonel Abdul Salam Arif. Nine months later Arif overthrew the Ba’athist regime following an internal power struggle and on 13th April 1966 President Abdul Salam Arif was killed in a helicopter crash.
The president’s brother, General Abdul Rahman Arif, replaced him and on 17th July 1968 the Ba’ath Party retook power and installed Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr as President and Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. A period of relative calm followed; even a deal was struck with the Kurds in 1970, but the regime was brutal and many thousands died as ‘traitors to the state’.
President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr resigned in July 1979 and Saddam Hussein, head of al-Bakr’s secret police, assumed the offices of President and Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. Saddam Hussein had many grand ideas and in 1980 he launched a war against Iran which was to last eight years and cost the lives of more than half a million people.
Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran War, but the world was shocked when he also used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Northern Iraq. His desire to develop nuclear weapons worried the West sufficiently that in 1981 the Israeli Air Force bombed his nuclear facility at Osiraq. But President Hussein went too far when he invaded neighbouring Kuwait on 2nd August 1990. By 17th January 1991 the West had gathered its forces and invaded Iraq in an offensive called Operation Desert Storm. By early March Iraq was defeated and Western troops were already leaving the country. Kuwait was liberated but Saddam Hussein and his government were intact.
Saddam did not flinch, despite Western imposed ‘no-fly zones’ in the North and South of the country to protect the Kurdish and Shiite populations. He built up his army once more and an estimated 300,000 people were killed by the regime. By the late 1990s the United States and Britain’s Tony Blair were claiming that Iraq was developing more Weapons of Mass Destruction ‘WMDs’.
After a protracted campaign in the United Nations and following the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September 2001, the West decided to invade Iraq once more. The invasion of Western forces started on 20th March 2003 and the country was overrun very quickly, but it wasn’t until 13th December 2003 that Saddam was captured. Saddam Hussein was executed on 30th December 2006 but the Western forces would not leave Iraq until December 2011.
In the meantime, once the Iraqi forces had been defeated the so called Multi-National Force in Iraq (MNF-I) introduced a transitional administrative law.
The first post Saddam elections in Iraq took place on 30th January 2005 and they elected a 275 member National Assembly which had been created under the Transitional Law. This allowed for a constitution to be developed and further elections were held after a constitutional referendum on 15th October 2005.
On 15th December 2005 elections were held for the 275 seat Iraqi Council of Representatives. Turnout was high at 79.6% but the results created a coalition which was always going to prove difficult to keep together. Nouri al-Maliki became Prime Minister.
The country struggled to move forward after much of the infrastructure had been badly damaged during the Iraq War. Western troops continued to operate widely across the country and bombings and massacres continued, especially between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.
On 7th March 2010 fresh elections were held for an enlarged Council of Representatives of 325 seats. The elections were controversial as around 500 candidates with alleged links to the Ba’ath Party were banned from standing. There were also widespread accusations of electoral fraud.
The final result left the Iraqi National Movement (al-Iraqiyah List), led by former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as the largest party with 91 seats. The State of Law Coalition, led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, came second with 89 seats. After months of negotiations Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Muslim, who had been president since 2005 remain in the post. Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, remained as Prime Minister and Ayad Allawi would head up the Security Council.
If anything the security problems in Iraq have worsened since the 2010 elections. With the departure of foreign troops the ethnic and religious conflict has grown with almost daily violence by Al-Qaeda and Shiite militias. Politically the infighting has intensified and it is unclear if the general election slated for 30th April 2014 will make things any better.
The President is elected by the Council of Representatives by a two-thirds majority vote to serve a four year term.
The unicameral Council of Representatives has 325 seats (328 in 2014) of which 317 members are elected by a closed-list, proportional representation system and 8 are reserved for minorities with members serving four year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Iraq at 166th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 17 (where 100 is least corrupt).