Post-war Iraq descended into chaos but has now achieved a degree of political stability
The heart of Iraq, forming around one-third of the territory, is the alluvial and often marshy basin of the Tigris and Euphrates. These rivers flow the length of the country before uniting as the Shatt al-Arab River, which flows into the Persian Gulf. To the north of this basin are uplands, and in the north-east is the mountainous region of Kurdistan. The rest of the country, to the west and south, around two-fifths of the territory, is largely desert.
There are three main population groups. The largest, accounting for around half the population, are Arab Shia Muslims, who live mostly in the centre and south. Next are the Arab Sunni Muslims who are around one-third of the population and are concentrated in the east around Baghdad. Then there are the Kurds, also Sunni Muslims, who make up one-fifth of the population and live in the north and north-east. There are also around three million exiled Iraqis.
The lives of most Iraqis have been devastated both by the former oppressive political regime, and by the 2003 war and its aftermath. Until the 1990s health standards were good, but then fell steeply, chiefly as a result of a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Child malnutrition has come down somewhat but remains high. Schools were also in a poor condition though most have now been rebuilt.
Iraq's economy has long depended on the export of oil. Iraq has around 10% of world reserves, the third largest after Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with the world's tenth largest reserves of natural gas. But production has been low. Prior to the war, Iraq was unable to export even its UN-sanctioned quotas and now the industry faces widespread sabotage that deters investment.
Manufacturing remains limited. Before the war efforts had been made to diversify industry away from oil but there has been little progress. Many people are still on the payroll of defunct state-owned enterprises.
Iraq's farmers should have been less affected by the fighting. The rich alluvial soil with ample supplies of water ought to make the country very productive. Around one-quarter of the labour force are engaged in farming. In practice, many peasant farmers have reverted to subsistence production. Production has revived lately but around half of the country's food needs still have to be imported and one-quarter of the population rely on the public food distribution system. Up to half the workforce are probably underemployed.
Saddam was cunning but made disastrous mistakes
For 25 years political life in Iraq was dominated by Saddam Hussein who came to power in a coup in 1979. He summarily executed his rivals and subsequently dealt ruthlessly with any opposition. Saddam was politically cunning but he also made disastrous mistakes—notably the war with Iran over the period 1980–88, and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that provoked intervention and defeat by a US-led coalition in the Gulf War.
Following that war there were a number of attempts to topple Saddam but uprisings by Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south were easily crushed. The international community made efforts to monitor his weapons production using the UN inspection force UNSCOM. But Saddam denied access to most sites and, after the team was withdrawn in 1998, the USA and the UK responded with bombing raids.