issue 180 - February 1988
Iraq is blessed with the vital natural resources denied its Arab neighbours. Huge expanses of fertile land and unlimited supplies of water give it enormous productive potential. And Iraq has oil - the means to make its agriculture fruitful and its industry productive.
Ten years ago the Iraqi economy was growing faster than any other in the region. Oil had stimulated new industry, cities were being modernized rapidly and ambitious plans promised change in the countryside. Many Iraqis felt they had paid a heavy price for progress - the country was run by a tightly-knit group of military men who in the name of the Ba'ath (Resurrection) Party suppressed all opposition. But the Ba'ath's successful programme of development could hardly be ignored.
Then came war. When President Saddam Hussein ordered his army into Iran in September 1980 after continual border skirmishes, life in Iraq changed radically. Almost every family has lost a member; the war penetrates every area of the nation's life.
Development programmes have all but projects and has continued key agricultural schemes. But the grand plans of the 1970s have been abandoned. Then, Iraq's oil income was rising rapidly: in 1979 it was over $25 billion. Today, the oil glut and effects of war have more than halved that figure and there are few other industries able to boost export earnings.
Iraq has become a debtor state, owing over $50 billion to its Arab Gulf neighbours, the countries which keep a battered economy afloat.
War has not improved the Ba'athist regime's unenviable record on civil rights. The Party has long been dominated by members of the Sunni Arab minority, who have shown little patience with the Kurds of the north or the Shi'ite Arabs of the south. The Kurds have been victims of particularly intense repression.
For the present, the Ba'athists' dream - that Iraq should become the model for Arab development - is over. This is a bitter reverse for many Iraqis, eager to reassert their country's ancient traditions. During the 1970s, the government began a long programme under which medieval mosques would be restored and some of the glory of Iraq's Islamic past reasserted, with Baghdad, Basra and Mosul again seen as centres of Arab culture.
The Government also sponsored a series of excavations among the dusty mounds that litter the Mesopotamian plain. Here stand the remains of the great cities of the Fertile Crescent - Babylon, Nineveh, Eridu, Nippur - the evidence that Iraq saw the beginnings of urban civilization.
For the present, Iraq's priorities lie elsewhere. Until peace comes to the Gulf, it will remain a society struggling to survive.
Leader: President Saddam Hussein
Economy: GNP per capita $1,467 (US $15,390)
People: 15.9 million
Health: Infant mortality 73 per 1,000 live births (US 11 per 1,000)
Culture: Since the 1960s there has been large rural migration to the towns. The north and east are populated mainly by the Kurds, who have their own language and distinct culture. Elsewhere the people regard themselves as Arab, though there is a sharp division between the Shilte Muslims of the south and the Sunnis of the central area.
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