Seventy-seven percent of Iraq’s population consists of Arabs, twenty percent are Kurds, and the remaining three percent consist of small minority groups. The Arab conquests of the 7th century brought about the Arabization of central and southern Iraq, whereas the northern and northeastern sections (Iraqi Kurdistan) remained under the control of the Kurds. A mixed population of Kurds and Arabs inhabits the transition area between central Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurds constitute a separate and distinctive cultural group. They are mostly Sunnite Muslims who speak a Farsi-related language. They are of Indo-European antecedents, different from the other, largely Semitic groups. They are strongly clannish, and are distinctive in costume, music, and dance.
Concentrated primarily in the relatively inaccessible mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds spill over into the adjacent areas of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and parts of Transcaucasia. In order to win an independent state, the Iraqi Kurds rose in open rebellion against the government from 1961 to 1975, aided in part by military support from Iran. But their attempts to gain autonomy failed.
In 1970, Iraq agreed to accept the bi-lingual character of the country and granted the Kurds political and cultural autonomy, but it was never implemented. In 1975 the Iraqi administration decided to create a Kurdish Autonomous Region covering an area of about 14,700 sq miles, nearly one-half of the area demanded by the Kurds, but excluding the oil-rich Kirkuk area.
Having failed to gain freedom for their territory, the Kurds continued their rebellion. Following the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) a brutal repression of the Kurds was resumed (Iran had provided support to the Kurds during the War). At least 300,000 Kurds were deported from their homes, effectively depopulating one-third of the Iraqi Kurdistan territory.
Thousands of Kurds fled into Turkey and Iran. By 1990 the Kurdish opposition had largely been eliminated. Turkmen, Persians, and Assyrians are some other groups, each forming less than one percent of the population.
Islam is the predominant religion, divided between its two major sects: Shia and Sunni, representing 63 and 34 percent of the population, respectively. About three percent of the population consists of Christians. Yazidis, Jews, and Bahais are other minor groups. The Jewish community traces its origin to the Babylonian Exile (586-516 B.C.).
In 1948 the Jews constituted about 2 percent of the population; most have moved to Israel since its establishment in 1948. The Christians are the descendants of an ancient population that escaped conversion to Islam in the 7th century. They belong to several sects— Chaldeans, Nestorians, and the Eastern Orthodox church—and are found in all parts of the country.
The current administration, belonging to the Arab Baath Socialist Party, has aspired to leadership in the Arab community and has asserted its loyalty to Arab solidarity, opposition to Israel, and the creation of a self-dependent, secularized, and socialistic nation.
Although it professes to be non-religious, the ruling party is largely Sunnite and is often disturbingly unproductive of the interests of the other religious groups, including the Shiites who are concentrated in the southern part of the country.
Population and Settlement Patterns:
Iraq has the third largest population (22.4 million) in Southwest Asia (after Iran and Turkey). But the densities are considered low, and the country is considered under populated. The nation has a potentially large, productive area of the Tigris- Euphrates system, and access to large oil revenues. The irrigated area could be increased substantially, as the existing water is now most inadequately utilized.
The government strongly encourages population growth, which will remain high, as the birthrates at 45 per 1,000 population and fertility rates are among the highest in the world. Forty six percent of the population is below the age of 15, and the population is likely to double in about 20 years (despite the large losses in the Iran- Iraq War of the 1980s).
But the workforce (15 to 50 age groups) remains small. Many Iranians, most of whom had settled in the south and east, were deported in the 1970s, and the subsequent labor shortages resulted in the arrival of large numbers of foreigners, particularly Egyptians.
Most of the population is concentrated in the lowlands, particularly along the fertile Tigris and Euphrates. Almost a third of the population lives within 90 miles of Baghdad, and a substantial proportion of it is in the densely-populated area between Baghdad and Basra along the Tigris and Euphrates. Although these settlement patterns were set thousands of years ago, there has been, during the past few decades, increasing migration to the cities. Ten percent of the labor force is engaged in agricultural activities.
Only a small portion of the population is classified as bedouins who raise camels, sheep, and goats and are concentrated primarily in the western desert region. Some of the Kurdish tribesmen in the mountains and the foothills are also semi-nomadic graziers, although most of the four million Iraqi Kurds are sedentary farmers.
Baghdad (population: 4.5 million), the capital of the nation, is situated near the center of the nation at the head of the Tigris delta at a point where the Euphrates comes closest to the Tigris. It is a historic city, and was the seat of the Babylonians, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, and Ottomans. The site, however, presents some problems: the Tigris is surrounded by natural levees, adjoining the flood plains, but given to recurrent seasonal flooding.
Another major problem is the unceasing influx of people from the countryside. They come to find jobs in the metropolitan area, but continue to add to the ranks of the frustrated unemployed. Baghdad is the nation’s dominant commercial, industrial, and cultural center.
Basra (Diyala) is the second largest city, and the nation’s only seaport; it has a population of close to half a million, and a growing metropolis, despite suffering a setback during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the Gulf War of 1990. As a port, it has excellent arrangements. Mosul (population: 670,000) in the north, at the edge of the mountains, lies at the Tigris and is an important oil-re- fining center.