Iraq is dominated by two famous rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. They flow southeast from the highlands in the north across the plains toward the Persian Gulf. The fertile region between these rivers has had many names throughout history, including Al-Jazirah, or "the island," in Arabic and Mesopotamia in Greek.
Many parts of Iraq are harsh places to live. Rocky deserts cover about 40 percent of the land. Another 30 percent is mountainous with bitterly cold winters. Much of the south is marshy and damp. Most Iraqis live along the fertile plains of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Iraq is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the Middle East. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Mandaeans, and Armenians, among others, speak their own languages and retain their cultural and religious identities.
Iraqis once had some of the best schools and colleges in the Arab world. That changed after the Gulf War in 1991 and the United Nations sanctions that followed. Today only about 40 percent of Iraqis can read or write.
Safeguarding Iraq's wildlife is a big job. There are essentially no protected natural areas in the country. And with an ongoing war, the government is, understandably, more concerned with protecting people and property than plants and animals.
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, several species were considered at risk, including cheetahs, wild goats, and dugongs. Scientists have not been able to assess the condition of these animals since the war started.
Iraq's rivers and marshes are home to many fish, including carp that can grow up to 300 pounds (135 kilograms) and sharks that swim up from the Persian Gulf.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
In January 2005, Iraqis voted in the country's first democratic elections in more than 50 years. It took another three months for a government to take office, but Iraq's new democracy was set up to ensure all ethnic groups are represented.
Iraq has the world's second largest supply of oil. But international sanctions during the 1990s and the instability caused by the 2003 war have left Iraq in poverty.
Iraq's history is full of unsettling changes. In the past 15 years alone, it has witnessed two major wars, international sanctions, occupation by a foreign government, revolts, and terrorism. But Iraq is a land where several ancient cultures left stamps of greatness on the country, the region, and the world.
Iraq is nicknamed the "cradle of civilization." Thousands of years ago, on the plains that make up about a third of Iraq, powerful empires rose and fell while people in Europe and the Americas were still hunting and gathering and living more primitive lives.
The Sumerians had the first civilization in Iraq around 3000 B.C. The first type of writing, called cuneiform, came out of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state. Around 2000 B.C., the Babylonians came into power in southern Mesopotamia. Their king, Hammurabi, established the first known system of laws.
Babylonian rule ended in 539 B.C. when the Persians took over. In A.D. 646, Arabs overthrew the Persians and introduced Islam to Iraq. Baghdad was soon established as the leading city of the Islamic world. In 1534, the Ottomans from Turkey conquered Iraq and ruled until the British took over almost 400 years later.
Iraq became an independent country in 1932, although the British still had a big influence. In 1979, Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party took control of Iraq and promoted the idea that it should be ruled by Arabs. Hussein ruled as a ruthless dictator. In 1980, he started a long war with Iran, and in 1991, he invaded Kuwait, triggering the first Gulf War.
In 2003, after years of sanctions against Iraq, the United States invaded again out of concern that Saddam Hussein was making dangerous weapons. U.S. military forces quickly reached Baghdad and threw the Baathists from power. Saddam Hussein was captured, tried for crimes against humanity, and executed.