Centred on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq is the site of ancient Mesopotamia and a cradle of civilisation. The country has a complex history keyed on the traditional divide between city dwellers and regional tribes and the introduction of Islam in the 7th Century and its subsequent split into the Sunni and Shia factions.
The followers of Sunni Islam make up one third of the Iraqi population but for historical reasons hold almost all positions of power. The remaining two thirds are Shia, living mostly in the country's centre and south. The Sunni are concentrated in the north.
The influence of the Sunni is cemented during the Ottoman Empire's reign over Iraq from the 16th to 20th centuries. The Ottomans, who also follow Sunni Islam, favour Iraqis of the same faith, using them to balance the threat from Shia-dominated Iran.
European influence in Iraq begins early in the 20th Century, as the Ottoman Empire enters its death throes. When the Ottomans join the First World War on the side of Germany in 1914, British forces invade Iraq, quickly seizing territory in the south. The Arab Revolt of 1916 spells the end of Ottoman influence in the Middle East.
When the war ends in November 1918 Iraq is placed under British mandate. Iraqi nationalists, who believed their support for the British during the war would be rewarded with independence, rebel. The British are shaken and introduce a largely autonomous constitutional monarchy.
The boundaries of the new state encompass the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Oil-rich Mosul is included in the state, despite the wish of its Kurdish majority for self-government. However, Kuwait, a small, coastal emirate to the south of Iraq, is excluded, despite having been a province of the ancient state of Mesopotamia from which Iraq has been carved.
Iraqi nationalists, meanwhile, continue to insist on full independence. Complete independence is finally granted in October 1932, although the British retain significant influence and the imposition of arbitrary borders with no relation to the historical and cultural make-up of the region leads to regional disputes.
The Iraqi military become increasingly involved in politics following independence, staging a coup d'état in 1936. A protracted period of political instability follows.
Discontent with the British imposed monarchy and political system is heightened by political repression and the British reoccupation of the country during the Second World War. Opposition groups, including the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party, begin to make inroads. Baath is committed to socialism, Arab nationalism and secularism.
- Iraq - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series