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 shaped by 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 north of Iraq comes to be dominated by followers of Sunni Islam. They make up one third of the Iraqi population but for historical reasons hold almost all positions of power. The Shia make up most of the remaining two thirds of the population. They live mostly in the country's centre and south.
The influence of the Sunni is cemented during the Ottoman Empire's reign over Iraq from the early 16th Century to the early 20th Century. The Ottomans, who also follow Sunni Islam, favour Iraqis of the same faith and use them to balance the threat from Shia-dominated Iran.
European involvement 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 and quickly seize 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.
Iraq's post-war borders are imposed arbitrarily and bear little or no relation to the historical and cultural make-up of the region. The borders enclose the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Oil-rich Mosul is included despite the wish of its Kurdish majority for self-government. 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. The imposition of the arbitrary borders will contribute to the development of future regional disputes.
Iraq is finally granted complete independence in October 1932, although the British retain significant influence.
The Iraqi military become increasingly involved in politics following independence. In 1936 the military stage a coup d'état and overthrow the government. 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 become more influential. Baath is committed to socialism, Arab nationalism and secularism.