Iraq Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Iraq is a country located in Western Asia. With the capital city of Baghdad, Iraq has a population of 40,222,504 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Iraq became independent in 1932 but the British influence remained until the monarchy was abolished in a military coup in 1958. Ten years later, the Baath Party took power. Under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule, the country was modernized, using the large oil resources, but Shia Muslims and Kurds were marginalized. From 1980, Iraq was involved in bloody conflicts that shattered the economy. In 2003, Iraq was invaded by the United States, bringing Shia Muslims to power and triggering civil war. Although some stability had been achieved prior to the US departure in 2011, the fighting flared up again a few years later.

Iraq became independent from Britain in 1932, but British influence remained strong. In 1955, the Baghdad Pact was established between the United Kingdom, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey in order to guarantee Western influence in the Middle East. The pact was met by strong opposition from Iraqi nationalists. In a military coup in 1958, Iraq’s then King Faisal II was assassinated and General Abd al-Karim Qasim became leader of a leftist nationalist regime. Iraq left the Baghdad Pact and made closer contacts with the Eastern bloc.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Iraq. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

In 1963, Qasim was killed and succeeded by Colonel Abd al-Salam Arif, who had close contacts with the Baath Party. It had been formed in Syria in 1947 as an Arab-nationalist, secular and socialist party that would work for Arab unity. In 1968, the Baath Party seized power in Iraq through a new coup. Iraq was called a democratic people’s republic with socialism as its goal, but in practice the country remained a dictatorship. Many of the new leaders came from Sunni Arab clans around the city of Tikrit, including President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his relative Saddam Hussein, who were given a prominent role as the regime’s second man. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Iraq.

After a troubled start, the new regime strengthened its position as the Baath Party – now more clearly governed by Saddam Hussein – succeeded in raising the Iraqi prosperity with income from growing oil exports. The oil industry had been nationalized in 1972 and in the following years great investments were made in education and health care.

Hard dictatorship

In 1979, President Bakr resigned and was succeeded by Saddam Hussein, who already in practice ruled the country. One of his first actions was to have several leading Baathists executed, who were allegedly planning a coup with the help of Syria. The power was concentrated on Saddam Hussein’s relatives and Sunni Arab clans. The government’s relations with the Shiite majority and its religious leaders became worse, despite the fact that the Baath party contained some Shi’ites. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship soon emerged as one of the toughest in the Middle East.

The Kurds in the north had struggled for autonomy ever since Iraq’s independence, and during the 1960s, Kurdish insurgency had been defeated by the regime. In 1970, an agreement was signed between the regime and the Kurds, which would give the Kurds representation in the Baghdad government and autonomy in three provinces in the north. But new battles erupted. The Kurdish movement was supported by Iran, which was embroiled in border disputes with Iraq. When Iraq signed an agreement with the Shah of Iran in 1975 to resolve the border disputes, Saddam Hussein could crush the Kurds’ revolt. The Baghdad government regained control in the north and many Kurds were expelled.

In the agreement with Iran in 1975, Iraq had been forced to give up its demand to control the entire Shatt al-Arab watercourse and accept that the border was drawn in the middle of the river. Dissatisfaction in Baghdad with this, as well as concerns that the 1979 Iran revolution (which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power) would spread to the Shi’a Muslims in Iraq, led to border crossings between the two countries. In September 1980, Iraq invaded the neighboring country and initially had great success. But the war ended, and in 1982 Iranian forces entered Iraq. The result was a prolonged and very bloody war of attitudes, in which both countries attacked oil transport and civilian targets. Many countries were hostile to the fundamentalist Shiite government in Tehran and Saddam Hussein was able to strengthen his armed forces through arms imports from both the West and the East, even though it was known that the Iraqi army used combat gas in the war. According to a UN report, about 10,000 Iranians were killed by Iraq’s chemical warfare. Saddam Hussein was also granted large credits by the Gulf States, which saw Iran as a threat. In 1984, the military balance turned to Iraq’s favor and in 1988 Iran agreed to a ceasefire.

An Iran-backed Kurdish uprising during the war had been answered by gas attacks and extensive massacres on civilian Kurds (see Kurdistan). In total, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Iran and Iraq, including Kurdistan, but the death toll is contentious and uncertain.

Kuwait attacks

Iraq’s economy was now in ruins and the country had large debts. Iraq suggested in 1990 that the country might take military action against countries that produced too much oil, thus pushing up prices, demanding that Kuwait write off loans from the war years. In August 1990, Kuwait was invaded, declared to be Iraq’s 19th province. The UN Security Council imposed widespread sanctions on Iraq and gave its Member States the right to liberate Kuwait “by all necessary means”. An international force under US leadership was built up. Sweden contributed financially and by sending a field hospital. In January 1991 “Operation Desert Storm” was launched with air strikes, which were later followed by ground troops. Kuwait was quickly liberated and the Iraqi army was destroyed.

The Kurds in the north and the Shia Muslims in the south now revolted against Saddam Hussein. The United States had urged the people to rise and many were convinced that the US military would come to the rescue, but that did not happen. Saddam Hussein brutally turned down the raids after signing a ceasefire agreement after the Kuwait War. The UN could not agree on a response to this, but the United States and the United Kingdom (and 1991-1998 also included France) imposed a ban on Iraqi planes in the north and south. During the rest of the nineties, there was an occasional air war against so-called strategic targets in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was forced to withdraw his military from the Kurdish zone in the north, where the Kurds proclaimed autonomy in October 1992 (see Kurdistan).

In the spring of 1991, the UN Security Council had decided that Iraq could no longer own or develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA (until 1997 under the leadership of the Swedish Hans Blix) was assigned the task of controlling a possible nuclear weapons program. Other weapons would be controlled by the UN special commission UNSCOM (until 1997 led by the Swede Rolf Ek√©us). The sanctions against Iraq would be maintained until all weapons of mass destruction were destroyed. In 1996, the United Nations launched an oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq to export a certain amount of oil to pay for imports of food and medicines to the population. It later emerged that the regime made big profits through bribes and illegal fees that companies paid for contracts under the program’s framework.

The United States is invading

Following a series of conflicts, weapons inspections were suspended in 1998. The United States and the United Kingdom increased the number of air strikes. The intention was to eventually remove Saddam Hussein. The UN Security Council was divided and France, Russia and China criticized the US line. In 1999, the Security Council decided that new inspections should be done, now with the Unmovic organization, which was led by Hans Blix. After a while, however, Iraq refused to cooperate on the inspections.

After the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the press on Saddam Hussein increased. The United States claimed that Iraq may have had to do with the attacks and stated that Iraqi agents had contacts with the terrorist network al-Qaeda, which was behind the terrorist attacks. It was not until November 2002 that Iraq released UN weapons inspectors. These were thought to need more time for their work, but US President George W Bush had by that time decided to remove the Iraqi leader. The US and Britain abandoned diplomacy and gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum: if he and his closest did not leave Iraq, war would break out. On March 20, air strikes against Baghdad began.

In early April 2003, US Army forces entered Baghdad without facing particularly stiff resistance. On April 9, it was clear that the regime no longer had control. Several of Saddam Hussein’s closest men were arrested or surrendered the weeks after the war. However, some of the regime’s elite allies had begun to prepare for underground resistance. Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in a firefight in July 2003 while Saddam Hussein could be arrested in December. In November 2006, he was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, specifically a massacre of 148 Shiites in the city of Dujayl in 1982. He was hanged on December 30 of that year.

Looting and crime

Iraq was now occupied by the US-led force. The US-British forces had not been trained to maintain order and security, and they hardly interfered with looting and crime. Guarding Iraq’s borders has almost completely ceased. In retrospect, one of the most serious mistakes in the United States is considered to have been in May 2003 when the Baath regime’s army and security forces disbanded instead of replacing certain officers. The Baath Party was also banned (see Political system). The remnants of the regime came to form the core of a Sunni-dominated resistance that slowly became more and more extensive, with suicide attacks, car bombs, massacres and kidnappings. However, the resistance quickly gained a religious Sunni-Islamist feel and extreme so-called jihadists soon began to arrive from Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries. One of the most radical resistance groups joined the international terror network al-Qaeda in 2004.

The US initially ruled Iraq directly, but in July 2003 appointed an advisory body with 25 Iraqi politicians. A Provisional Constitution (Transitional Administrative Law) came into force in June 2004, after which the regime switched to an Iraqi interim government even though the United States retained a decisive influence. Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite Muslim and former Baath party who lived in exile for a long time, was named Prime Minister. General elections for a transitional parliament and provincial assemblies were held in January 2005, but they were boycotted by many Sunni Arabs. Parliament appointed a transitional government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’a Muslim from the Iran-linked Islamist Dafa Party (see Political system). A new constitution was approved in a referendum in October of the same year.

In December 2005, new elections were held and an ordinary parliament was appointed. After long negotiations, a new unity government with representatives of all peoples groups could take office in 2006, led by new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from the Dawapartiet.

The invasion had induced violence, terrorism and ethnic divisions. No weapons of mass destruction were found. The previously oppressed Kurds and Shia Muslims had helped to establish a strong position in the state at the expense of the Sunni Arabs. The fighting worsened from 2006, especially after an explosive attack on a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra. The government was weak and Shiite militia, often backed by Iran, took the lead in the war against the Sunni rebels. The violence began to increasingly target civilians from both sides. In October 2006, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch and several smaller Sunni organizations joined in an alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq, which became one of the largest rebel groups.

Collaboration with militia

Eventually, the United States must change its strategy. Meetings between the U.S. Army and Sunni Arab clan leaders in Iraq took place in the fall of 2006. These clan leaders were hostile to the Maliki government and the United States occupation, but they also disliked the brutality of the Islamic State and feared the growing power of the Shiite militia. Some clan leaders accepted the US offer of money and support to fight the Islamic State. These groups were named al-Sahwa , the “awakening,” and eventually came to include tens of thousands of armed members, who in many cases had previously belonged to the resistance movement or the Baath Party. At the same time, the United States deployed military reinforcements, especially in Baghdad.

The violent purges between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs culminated in the summer of 2007 and the violence was then suppressed slowly but surely. In 2008, the United States was able to hand over the Anbar province in western Iraq, which was a strong hold on the uprising, to the Iraqi government. In 2008, the US and Iraq negotiated an agreement under which foreign forces would leave the country before 2012. Half a year later, US new President Barack Obama had begun withdrawing troops, and in August 2010, the last fighting brigades left Iraq, though less guarded. and training forces remained. Iraq was increasingly stabilized and in 2010 several of the Islamic State’s top leaders were killed. However, the group continued to carry out attacks and targeted several attacks against Iraq’s Christian minority. Many Christians had left the country before this.

In March 2010, parliamentary elections were held, where fundamentalist Shi’a parties again prevailed. Nuri al-Maliki retained the prime minister’s post, although it took nine months of negotiations before a compromise was reached around a new government. The so-called Arab Spring (a wave of political protests) swept through the Middle East in the spring of 2011, triggering a Sunni uprising in neighboring Syria, but did not seem to affect Iraq very much. In December 2011, the last American soldiers left Iraq.

The violence is increasing again

During his years in power, Maliki had slowly but surely gathered influence in his own hands and placed relatives and Shiite Islamists on important posts in the army and police. He relied more and more on Iran instead of on the United States and thwarted the Americans’ attempts to invite the Sunni insurgents into politics. The US withdrawal was followed directly by an arrest warrant against Iraqi Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Maliki also refused to fulfill US promises to the Sahwa militia that these former adversaries would receive pay and work within the security forces. As a result, some people again took up arms and control over Iraq’s Sunni areas was weakened.

Now the violence began to increase again, also due to the conflict in Syria. The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed government was dominated by Arab Sunni Muslims, just like the uprising in Iraq. Soon, Sunnis rebels began to cooperate across the border. The Islamic State sent money and members to Syria, where they founded the so-called Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), which would secretly act as a representative of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

In 2012, protests broke out in the Sunni Anbar province in western Iraq, partly inspired by the uprising in Syria. They spread to other Sunni areas. Supporters of the banned Baath Party and former Sahwa members played a role in the protests, but it was the Islamic State that dominated the armed resistance. Islamic State was also strengthened by the Nusrafront’s success in Syria, but in 2013 a conflict between the groups emerged, after Islamic State decided that the two organizations would merge into a single under the name Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that could mean Damascus, Syria or the Levant; the group’s past names are often abbreviated Isis or Isil). The leaders of the Nusrafront refused to comment on this, saying they only wanted to be part of al-Qaeda’s international network.

In 2014, the Islamic State (IS), which the organization soon also called itself, laid down increasingly large areas, often with the help of weapons captured from Iraq’s government army. Cities like al-Fallujah and finally Mosul were taken. In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the leader of the movement Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate”, a state with pretensions to rule over all Muslims. The exercise of power became very brutal, not least for minority groups such as the Yazidis.

IS’s advance led to the US re-entering a military role in Iraq. An international alliance was convened to drive away the jihadist movement. Yet another war was going on, which would last for years and leave great havoc behind.



Election to real parliament

Elections are held for the first time to an ordinary parliament.


Broad yes to new foundations

Despite the Sunni opposition, a referendum is being held on the constitutional proposal. The result is that the Constitution, which creates a federal state, is approved. Around 78 percent of voters say yes.


Terror and death panic in Baghdad

Nearly 1,000 people die during a day in Baghdad, after grenades were fired at Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims and panic ensued as a result of rumors of suicide bombers. Many died when they were trampled to death or fell down the Tigris River. The incident sharpens the bitter contradictions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Disagreement on new basis

A new constitution is being tabled and approved by Shiite and Kurdish negotiators, but not by the Sunni Arab representatives.


The violence is increasing sharply

Violence is escalating more and more. According to Iraqi authorities, 672 civilians were killed during the month, a substantial increase from 364 in April.


Kurdish leaders become president

Parliament elects Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president. Ibrahim al-Jaafari becomes prime minister.


Legislative elections

Elections are held for a transitional parliament.

Iraq Modern History