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Iraq is situated in the Middle East, on the Persian Gulf. It is about the same size as the U.S. state of California. It shares borders with Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait. Straddling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, stretching from the Gulf to the Anti-Taurus Mountains, Iraq occupies roughly what was once the ancient land of Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilization.
The population of Iraq is estimated to be over 31 million (July 2012, CIA World Factbook). Iraq is 75%-80% Arab, 15-20% Kurd, and also includes some other smaller ethnic groups. It is predominantly Muslim, with Christians and other religions accounting for about 3% of the population.
Iraq was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, but after World War I it came under British control, and then gained independence as a kingdom in 1932. A coup in 1968 brought the Arab nationalist Ba'ath (meaning Renaissance) party to power, and Saddam Hussein became president in 1979.
The country experienced internal political oppression and a war with neighboring Iran between 1980 and 1988. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in the 1991 Gulf War, U.S.-led forces expelled their troops and liberated Kuwait from Iraqi control. After the war, Kurds in the north and Shi'a Muslims in the south rebelled against Hussein’s government, leading to a massive crackdown. In response, the U.S., U.K., and France established no-fly zones to protect civilians in the north and south of the country.
Despite subsequent international sanctions, the Iraqi government failed to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions requiring it to scrap all weapons of mass destruction and allow U.N. inspectors to verify compliance.
Citing this failure to comply with U.N. inspections, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, resulting in the removal of the Ba'ath regime and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took on responsibility for security and administration in Iraq in the immediate term, and transferred sovereign authority to an interim Iraqi government in 2004; elections were held on January 30, 2005, after which the Iraqi Transitional Government assumed authority. A new constitution was approved in a national referendum in October 2005.
Yet the security situation in Iraq deteriorated, as violent conflict flared between Iraqi groups. The U.S.-led Multi-National Forces continued their presence, and the U.S. increased its troop numbers in a “surge” in 2007, which helped to stabilize the environment. The level of violence has now significantly declined, but attacks still occur. As many as 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives in the violence in recent years, and over 30,000 U.S. and international soldiers have been killed or wounded.
Iraq formed its second democratically elected government in 2010, with national elections resulting in heavy turnover in the Iraqi parliament. In August 2010, the U.S. ended more than seven years of combat operations in Iraq with a transition to a civilian-led mission. U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011.
The picture on the ground in Iraq remains complex. One notable improvement has been the development of an active civil society, lively opposition voices, and active and influential provincial councils: in April 2013, the country’s provincial elections marked the first Iraqi elections since the U.S. troop withdrawal. Yet despite hard-won gains and concrete improvements in many areas, Iraq continues to face significant challenges. Acts of violence by militant groups underscore the ongoing security concerns, and April 2013 was the bloodiest month in five years in Iraq. Turmoil in several parts of the country is compounded by internal displacement and the reappearance of armed groups that tore the country apart in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Regional volatility further strains the country, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to Iraq from neighboring Syria.
To stay current on the latest developments in the conflict, visit USIP.org.
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has played a key role in promoting peaceful governance through collaborative civic engagement in Iraq since 2003, and opened an office in Iraq in 2004. USIP’s core mission remains strengthening local capacities to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts peacefully by assisting Iraqis to develop the tools and institutions necessary to peacefully resolve disputes.
The Institute’s Iraqi partners in government and civil society have facilitated dialogue with multiple stakeholders across the country that address the roots of the conflict and propose concrete solutions. The Institute has several programs in Iraq focused on a myriad of issues including, but not limited to, institutional and personal capacity building, minority rights, justice and security, and civic education.
USIP interventions have helped bring about local reconciliation in Baghdad, provided Iraq’s next generation a stake in peacebuilding, promoted women’s leadership, improved educational curricula, contributed to the realization of rights under Iraq’s new constitution, and furthered U.S. policy development on Iraq.
USIP experts in Washington continue to work diligently toward peace and stability by implementing projects aimed at promoting reconciliation, strengthening governance and civil society, and giving a younger generation of Iraqis a stake in the peace and stability of their country.
For instance, USIP supports “Salam Shabab” (Peace Youth), a multimedia program that includes a website and a nationally-televised series and teaches Iraqi teens conflict management skills.
More information about our work in and on Iraq
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