Posted by andreas from p3EE3C319.dip.t-dialin.net (184.108.40.206) on Tuesday, October 08, 2002 at 4:30AM :
A history of Iraq, whose roots go back 10,000 years
By LANCE GAY, Scripps Howard News Service
October 7, 2002
There are few places on Earth that have as rich and complex a history as Iraq, a nation that can claim roots that go back 10,000 years.
It considers itself to be the "cradle of civilizations," the likely birthplace of the modern alphabet and geometry, and the wellspring of several religions.
It is the home of the world's first great cities, like Babylon, listed as one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" for its luxurious hanging gardens that modern archaeologists have been unable to replicate. In the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the cultural capital of Islam, and the source of some of the greatest Arabic literature, including the magical tales Scheherazade wove of "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
Abraham came from Ur in what is today southern Iraq, and some believe the Garden of Eden was located here, too.
But Iraq has spawned some of the world's most notorious dictators, from Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C., to Saddam Hussein, who has repeatedly vowed to follow in Nebuchadnezzar's footsteps and remove Israel from the map of the Middle East.
The Greeks identified Iraq as Mesopotamia - "the land between the rivers" - because of the role the Tigris and the Euphrates have on the region. The world's first civilization developed in the flat lands between these two rivers - a plain known in history as the Fertile Crescent, surrounded by desert. Even with modern irrigation, less than 10 percent of Iraq today is capable of being used for agriculture.
While geography gave the country a base for agricultural riches, Iraq lacks any of the natural geographical defenses and has none of the tradition of stable government that permitted cultures like ancient Egypt to flourish.
Rather, much of Iraq's history is a succession of wars over the trade routes that crossed Iraq carrying the riches of China and India to the Mediterranean Ocean, and of strongmen who embarked on wars of conquest to establish fragile empires that disintegrated upon their deaths.
The first civilizations in the Middle East appeared in the fertile plains about 3,000 B.C., when Sumerians were selling surplus grains in clay pots.
The first writing appears about this time on clay tablets. The culture seems to have developed rapidly, because by 2700 B.C., the Sumerians were writing epic poems and plays, some of which survive almost intact today. The wealth that agricultural trade brought created a powerful and expanding state preserved by rulers such as Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), who left the first recorded code of laws.
Some of Iraq's strongmen used the country's wealth to expand their territory, like Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC), who made Babylon the world's most important city, and famously took his army to defeat Israel and destroy Solomon's temple in 586 B.C. Another of Nebuchadnezzar's legacies was the hanging gardens of Babylon, which involved gardens of brightly colored plants built on top of 70-foot-high stone arches, and irrigated with complex machinery.
Two centuries later, Alexander the Great showed how vulnerable the region was to well-armed outside invaders, as the Macedonian army established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Ocean to the borders of China. After Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C., his empire quickly disintegrated under the invasions of Persians from Iran.
In spite of intermittent wars between Persia and Byzantium, the Persians held the region until 634 A.D., when an army of 18,000 Muslims swept into the Euphrates River delta, converting Christian tribes in the region with the war cry: "A people is already upon you, loving death as you love life."
The new Muslim rulers moved the capital from Babylon to Baghdad in 762 A.D., and built the city into a thriving intellectual and cultural center. Iraqis today look back on this period as the zenith of their Islamic past, when Arabic universities and libraries flourished, translating Greek texts into Arabic, and giving life to medical and mathematical texts that the medieval West ignored.
But the glory years ended in bloodshed and devastation, as the Mongols under Genghis Khan swept through Central Asia, and his successors conquered Iraq in the 13th century. Baghdad was sacked twice, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, and the Mongols deliberately destroyed the irrigation systems that fed the farms.
These invasions sent Iraq into centuries of economic decline and misery, and led to a shift in the focus of power in Iraq from urbanized and educated Muslims to rural tribes led by semi-autonomous sheiks. Lacking any real power of its own, Iraq became a political football between competing powers in Turkey and Iran.
By the early 20th century, Iraq was considered part of the frontiers of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Turkish support for Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I marked the end of the Ottoman Empire. The victors carved up the Turkish Empire, with Great Britain getting control of Iraq and its oil fields.
Britain then laid out the framework for Iraq's new government, imposing a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq and neighboring Jordan, and defining the borders of the country with little regard to natural frontiers or tribal settlements. This opened disputes that led to decades of coups and other contention, particularly among military officers and tribal leaders who lost the prestige and authority they enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire.
Arab nationalists, eventually led by Egypt's Gamel Abdel-Nasser, didn't like the arrangements, and launched a campaign to evict the British influence by encouraging Arab revolts.
In 1958, disenchanted Iraqi military officers under Karim Qassem led a coup to unseat Iraqi King Faisal II, who was executed in his palace courtyard. Iraq was declared a republic, but its new leaders faced revolts of their own. A young Saddam Hussein first came to the attention of opposition leaders in Iraq as the triggerman of a five-member assassination squad that failed to kill Qassem in a 1959 coup.
Four years later, the Ba'ath Socialists opposition succeeded in a coup by killing Qassem and taking power. Saddam returned from exile in Egypt, and relentlessly worked his way up as security chief for the Ba'athists, increasing his power base inside the party. But when his party lost power, he was imprisoned for an extended period beginning on Oct. 14, 1964. After the Ba'ath regained control in 1968, Saddam rose to the post of vice president of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. He was proclaimed leader of Iraq in 1979 after leading a brutal purge of political rivals as a signal of what would happen to others who opposed him.
Domestically, Saddam built his popularity by using money from the '70s oil boom on massive slum-eradication projects, and an effort to rebuild Babylon, which had disappeared into the desert. Saddam mirrored his regime on that of Nebuchadnezzar, including hiring poets and playwrights to extol his virtues.
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