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Iraqis have been migrating to the US for a long time, but only in small numbers until the early 1980s. Since then, many have come as refugees.
Although this profile provides insights into some customs, it does not cover all facets of life. The customs described may not apply in equal measure to all newcomers from Iraq.

  Summary Fact Sheet
Official Name
Republic of Iraq
Type of Government
23 million
437,000 sq. km
Major Ethnic Groups
Arab, Kurdish, Turkoman, Assyrian
Arabic, Kurdish, Turkic, Syriac
Unit of Currency
National Flag
Three horizontal stripes of red, white and black. On the white centre stripe are three green stars and the inscription Allahu Akhbar ("God is great").
Date of Independence
October 3, 1932

  Did you know?
The ancient name for most of modern Iraq is Mesopotamia, a Greek word meaning "land between two rivers" - the Euphrates and the Tigres. Most Iraqis still live in this region.

Iraq's long history stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia, which is often called the cradle of human civilization. Rich in art and artifacts, the Sumerian culture flourished around 4000 BC. Since ancient times, Iraq has been home to great cities, including Baghdad, Ur and Nineveh.
After the Sumerians, Mesopotamia was home to many invaders who shaped the region's culture. Notable ancient rulers include Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. Beginning in the 7th century AD, Baghdad flourished under a series of Caliphs (dynastic rulers) as a centre for Islam, scientific learning, scholarship, arts and medicine. Mongols sacked the city in the 13th century. In 1534, the Turkish Ottoman Empire gained control of Mesopotamia and ruled until the early 20th century.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British forces captured Iraq during World War I, eventually controlling the country as a protectorate. A nationalist uprising in 1920 led to Iraq's becoming a kingdom under the rule of King Faisal (cousin to King Hussein of Jordan). The country gained its full independence as a sovereign state when the British Mandate ended in 1932. However, a treaty of preferential alliance allowed the British presence to continue in Iraq for another 25 years.
Iraqi nationalism strengthened during the next three decades. A military coup in 1958 toppled the monarchy and Iraq was declared a republic. The legislature and constitution were dissolved, and for the next decade, a series of coups put various leaders in power. In 1968, however, the government was permanently ousted by the Ba'ath (Revival or Renaissance) Party, who reintroduced a constitution. The party has continued to rule Iraq ever since.
Relations between the predominately Sunni Ba'athist government and the Iraqi people, particularly the Kurds, Turkomans and Shi'ite majority, have been strained since the Ba'ath Party came to power. Up until the present day, the government has repeatedly crushed rebellions-particularly those by Kurds demanding an autonomous Kurdish state, but also by Shi'ites in the south. Many people have fled to the northern Iraqi border or further to escape repression.
Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency in 1979, and a year later Iraq invaded Iran. The war lasted until 1988. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. An alliance of some Middle Eastern countries and NATO launched a retaliation known as the Persian Gulf War, which led to Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait in 1991. New rebellions by Kurds and Shi'ites were met with brutal repression and led to intervention by the United Nations. Since then, Iraq has been under great pressure from international economic sanctions and a United Nations agreement to allow for the monitoring of its weapons arsenal. Relations between Iraq and the United Nations, as well as Iran, continue to be tense.

  Did you know?
The Ba'ath Party began as a group of young activists in the government who supported Arab nationalism and socialism.

Iraq is located in the Middle East. To the north lie Turkey and Iran, which continues along Iraq's entire eastern border. To the southeast, a narrow section of Iraq joins the Persian Gulf. Also southward are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while Jordan and Syria lie to the west. Iraq can be divided into three geographical areas: a mountainous region in the far north and northeast; a wide, central and southern plain; and a desert region in the west and southwest.
The Zagros Mountains run from Iran through northwestern and northern Iraq. This rugged range has many peaks over 3,350 metres. Haji Ibrahim (3,904 metres) is the highest peak in Iraq. Although many of the mountains' original oak forests are gone, the Zagros still support maple, hawthorn and pistachio trees, as well as hardy alpine plants. This region also contains some of Iraq's largest oil reserves.
The mountains descend to a central plain. From Turkey and Syria, the great Tigres and Euphrates rivers enter northern and western Iraq and flowing in a diagonal route south to the Persian Gulf. The rivers create a central basin that contains most of the country's arable land. The most northern section of the central plain is a highland area of rolling grasslands, valleys and dry areas elevated up to 304 metres. The plain's southern section is flatter and wetter, home to numerous lakes. Baghdad and other cities are located here. Further southeast is a marshy land full of reeds, saltbush, buttercups and rushes. Near the Gulf, the Tigres and Euphrates meet to form the Shatt-al Arab, a channel that connects the port city of Basara with the coast.
Western and southwestern Iraq contain the Anabar and Al Hajara deserts. These flat, rocky regions support reptiles and sparse vegetation, including rockrose, storksbill and catchfly. Seasonal rains bring new growth and can flood wadis (dry riverbeds). In the far south is a region known as the Neutral Zone, established between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1975 to help the nomadic Bedouin people move more easily between these countries.
Although intense human settlement has limited wildlife habitat in Iraq, hyenas, gazelles, wildcats and boars live in some areas. The country also has many game birds and birds of prey, such as partridges, geese, ducks, vultures and buzzards.
Iraqi weather varies between extreme heat and extreme cold. Summers are very hot; some of the world's hottest temperatures have been recorded in the humid marshes near the Persian Gulf. Winters are cold, especially in the mountains and desert, where nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing.

  Did you know?
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, were built in Iraq by King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) for his wife, Amytis, to dispel her homesickness for mountainous northern Persia (Iran).

  Did you know?
Iraq has two important winds. The eastern Sharki wind is hot and humid, while the northern Shamal wind brings welcome cooler air during summer weather.


The official religion of Iraq is Islam, practiced by about 97% of the population. Muslims in Iraq practise two types of Islam: Shi'ism, practised by about 60% of the population, and Sunni. The rest of the population is made up mostly of Christians, Jews and adherents of others faiths.
Islam arose in the Middle Eastern city of Mecca in the 7th century, when Mohammed proclaimed himself the last in a line of prophets that includes Moses, Abraham and Jesus. Mohammed's teachings were compiled into the Islamic holy book, the Koran (or Qur'an). His other sayings and teachings, which were recorded by those who knew him, became known as the hadith (tradition). Muslims accept parts of the Biblical Old and New Testaments as indirect words from Allah (God).
The split into Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims occurred because of a disagreement over the question of religious leadership. One of the major distinctions between the two branches is that Shi'ites depend upon an imam or religious leader who, like the Pope, is considered an intermediary between the faithful and Allah. For Sunni Muslims, an imam is one who leads others in prayer.
All Muslims practice the five pillars of Islamic faith: professing the faith; praying five times daily; giving taxes for the upkeep of the poor and religious scholars; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and, if possible, making a hajj (pilgrimage) to the holy city of Mecca once in a lifetime. Shi'ites also add two more pillars: supporting the jihad or crusade to protect Islamic beliefs; and doing good works and avoiding all evil.
Muslims worship in mosques, where men congregate particularly on Friday, the Muslim Holy Day. Women are discouraged, but not prevented, from joining men at prayers in the mosque. There are also many important Islamic pilgrimage sites in Iraq, especially in the cities of An Najaf, Karbala, Kazimayn and Samarra, which contain tombs of Muslim Imams.

  Did you know?
Over one million Assyrians, a Semitic people indigenous to ancient Mesopotamia, still live in Iraq and form the country's largest Christian minority. The Assyrian Church was founded in 33 AD.

  Did you know?
Built in the 9th century, the great Mosque of Samarra has a distinctive spiral minaret. People can walk up spiralling stairs to its top.

The majority of Iraqis are Arabs. The country is also home to many other ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Kurds, who constitute over 20% of the population and whose traditional homeland is the Zagros mountains. Other minority groups include Turkomans, Assyrians, Yazidis, Persians, Luris, Mandaeans, Jews and Armenians.
Iraqis consider family unity and honour to be extremely important. Families hold their members responsible for their conduct and help each other whenever possible. Women are expected to be quiet and meek when in the presence of men, particularly outside the home. However, within the home women wield a great deal of power over their children and household affairs. As well, the recent wars have brought many women into the workforce.
Iraqis like large families, but urban couples usually have fewer children than people in the countryside. Iraqi children are loved and indulged, but taught to respect their elders. Correcting children's behaviour is considered many people's responsibility-including extended family members and neighbours.
Most young Iraqis marry when they finish their education. Parents often arrange marriages for their children, although the couple is permitted to meet first and may already know each other. Traditionally, women are given a dowry (mahar) of money and gold (either coins or jewellery), furniture or other useful items by the groom and his family. After marriage, women keep their own names and often continue to work.
Urban houses are built of cement or stone and are often surrounded with high stone walls. In two-storey homes, the roof is very important: the family often sleeps there during the summer, and in the daytime women spread laundry there to dry. Many urban families also live in apartments. Life in rural villages tends to be more traditional, and often three generations live together.
Most of Iraq's major cities and villages are located along rivers or near water. Iraq formerly had a large rural population, but in the last two decades, many people have moved to cities, which have become increasingly crowded. Iraqis traditionally lived in extended family units, but urban, educated Iraqis now usually live in nuclear families. Young adults rarely live on their own, but stay with their families until married.

  Did you know?
Iraqis observe the death of a family member with a 40-day mourning period. Women and men wear black, and after sundown during the first seven days (the aza), they share their grief with visitors, drinking coffee and listening to recordings of the Koran or to someone hired to read it aloud.

  Did you know?
Iraqis observe the death of a family member with a 40-day mourning period. Women and men wear black, and after sundown during the first seven days (the aza), they share their grief with visitors, drinking coffee and listening to recordings of the Koran or to someone hired to read it aloud.

Iraq's official language is Arabic, which has numerous dialects. In Iraq, most people speak either Modern Standard Arabic, which has virtually the same structure throughout the Middle East, or Iraqi Arabic, a dialect also common to Syria, Lebanon and parts of Jordan. In addition, many Iraqis are able to read classic Arabic, the language of writing for the Koran, the Islamic sacred text. Arabic is written in a distinctive flowing script that is read from right to left.
The second most common language in Iraq is Kurdish and its dialects. Unlike Arabic, Kurdish is an Indo-European language, meaning that it is distantly related to English. Kurdish dialects differ significantly from each other, so that a speaker of the Sorani dialect in northeastern Iraq will have difficulty understanding a speaker of Kurmanji, the language of Kurds in northern Iraq. In Kurdish schools and publications, Sorani is the dialect used. Kurdish is written using the Arabic alphabet, although in Turkey, the Latin script is used. Iraqis of Assyrian descent speak Syriac, while Turkomans speak Turkic. English is a common second language for educated Iraqis and the language of instruction in universities.
As in many Arabic countries, Iraqis often use pronounced hand, shoulder and head movements as part of their expression. For example, a person may say no just by raising the eyebrows and lifting the head back a little, sometimes making a tsk-tsk noise. Shaking the head from side to side means lack of understanding, not disagreement. In general, Iraqis of the same sex like to touch their friends and relatives when speaking with them. In public, women show deference to men and may not look them in the eye. People of the same sex usually kiss when greeting, but public affection between people of the opposite sex is discouraged.

Peace by upon you (formal greeting)
Is-salaamu aleekum
And upon you peace (formal response)
Wa-aleekum is-salaam
Hello (informal greeting)
Good morning
Sabaah il-kheer
Good morning (in response)
Sabaah il-nuur
Selam Alekum
Ma'as s-salaama

  Did you know?
Numerous Arabic words that have been accepted into English still show the Arabic article "al". These words include alcohol, alchemy, algebra, almanac and algorithm.

Iraq's modern education system was introduced by the British in the 1920s. Enrollment remained limited, however, and when Iraq became a republic in 1958, only about 20% of the population was literate. That figure has risen significantly since then, due to government efforts to build schools and raise enrollment. Literacy rates are generally highest in the cities, and are higher for men than women.
Education at all levels, including university, is free. Co-educational primary education is compulsory from the ages of 6 to 12, although some children begin kindergarten earlier. Unfortunately, school enrollment has fallen since the Gulf War.
At the end of primary school, children must pass an exam to enter the next level. The majority of secondary schools are segregated by sex. In a six-year program, students pass through two three-year cycles that consist of intermediate and preparatory studies, which focus on sciences and the arts. An exam completes each three-year cycle.
After secondary school, students may attend one of Iraq's eight universities, teacher training colleges or technical colleges, which offer vocational training in areas such as business, economics and agriculture. Tuition is free. Most universities and colleges are located in cities, the majority in Baghdad. The University of Baghdad's medical school is well-known for its research facilities. Mustansiriya University in Baghdad (founded 1234) is one of the oldest schools in the Arabic world.
In addition to their regular studies, students of all ages may attend an Islamic school (sharia), where they read and study the Koran. The schools in the cities of Al Najaf and Karbala are famous as centres of Islamic study and still attract scholars.

  Did you know?
Around 4000 BC, the Sumerians were the first settlers in Iraq to cultivate land. They also used early calendars, invented the wheel and the first alphabet, and were among the first peoples to study mathematics and astronomy.

The Iraqi government sponsors a health care system that provides Western-style treatment by doctors, hospitals and dispensaries free of charge. Private health care is also available, used mostly by the wealthy. All private facilities are subject to government supervision.
Until the Gulf War, Iraq had good public medical facilities. The government sponsored national vaccination programs that greatly lowered the incidence of diseases such as diphtheria, tuberculosis and measles. In addition, Iraqis were eligible for social benefits such as seniors' pensions, unemployment insurance, paid maternity leave and sick leave. In the 1980's the government expanded the country's hospital network, building more than 30 new centres; it also encouraged people to become doctors. However, the country experienced a chronic shortage of trained personnel and a discrepancy between the level of care available in cities and rural areas. Although physicians who trained at government expense were required to spend 12 years in the public health service, most resisted appointments to rural posts.
Unfortunately, the Gulf War and ongoing economic sanctions against Iraq have greatly compromised the health care system and quality of life for Iraqis. Many hospitals now lack adequate medical provisions and experience chronic shortages of power and water. Despite a UN "oil-for-food program," food shortages in Iraq have been severe. During the last decade, poor sanitation, contaminated water, malnutrition and lack of proper health care facilities have resulted in a soaring infant mortality rate and rising incidence of infectious diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis, as well as psychological disorders. Numerous international relief organizations have been working in Iraq for years to help. However, accurate current statistics on the population, as well as information on the country's current social system, are difficult to obtain because of ongoing unrest in Iraq.
Particularly in northern Iraq, people have traditionally used home remedies and herbal medicines; these treatments can also be purchased at a large bazaar in Baghdad. As a folk remedy, orange blossom water is said to prevent heart attacks.

  Did you know?
Iraqis use wildflowers such as chamomile to help sooth agitated nerves.

The most popular sport is football (soccer), which many people watch on television. In urban areas, every neighbourhood has its own soccer team. Iraq's national team plays internationally and draws large crowds for games at the Baghdad stadium. Ahmad Al Radhi and Hussein Saeed are currently two of Iraq's most famous players. While sports in Iraq are mostly played by men and boys, Iraq has recently launched a national women's football team. Girls also enjoy volleyball and tennis. Other popular sports for men are basketball, boxing, swimming, horseback riding and weightlifting. Assud Shaker is a well-known weightlifter. Hunting for game such as rabbits and birds is popular in the countryside. Sports facilities are limited, but Iraq hopes to develop teams for the Olympics and other international competitions.
A major aspect of Iraqi social life is spending time with family and friends, often dropping by to visit without an invitation. They expect their friends to do the same. Urban Iraqis attend movies, plays and musical shows, watch television and listen to the radio. People especially enjoy listening to classical and popular Iraqi music on the radio or in concert. Iraqi girls like sewing, aerobics and playing with dolls, while boys play with marbles and kites.
Another popular pastime for many Iraqis is reading; Iraqi homes often have a small library, which may include works by prominent Iraqi and Arabic writers, as well as Western European and American books that have been translated into Arabic.

  Did you know?
Eman Al-Rufei is an Iraqi chess grandmaster; she recently competed for Iraq in the World Chess Olympiad.

D.                      ECONOMIC
The foundation of Iraq's economy is oil. Its reserves are second only to those of Saudi Arabia, and Iraq has for decades been one of the world's main oil suppliers. The oil industry has drawn many people away from Iraq's traditional occupations of herding and farming.
Iraq's economy and infrastructure were greatly damaged in the wars with Iran and Kuwait. Since the Gulf War, the United Nations has imposed a world-wide trade embargo on Iraq. The economic results have been severe for the already devastated country. Although Iraq has been permitted to sell some of its oil reserves, many industries have still not been able to reach their pre-war levels of output. The country's level of unemployment is currently unknown. Since the oil embargo was imposed, some people have been returning to agriculture for their livelihoods.
Industry, services and agriculture have also been significant to Iraq's economy. Oil has provided funds to expand Iraq's construction industry and manufacturing sector. Industry has employed a large number of Iraqis, who work in mining, steel, electronics, construction and light manufacturing, textiles and food processing. Located in cities, factories are either government-owned or small, privately owned enterprises.
Schools, hospitals and other medical institutions, the government and the military are also important employers. Unlike some Middle Eastern countries, Iraq has encouraged women to work outside the home. Women work in all professions, though often as teachers, clerks, engineers and in the medical professions; many are encouraged to become doctors. Young men must give two years of compulsory military service before working.
Iraqi farmers cultivate land that they own themselves or lease from the government, or that is part of a government-owned collective, which offers profit sharing. Iraq's most important cash crops are dates and grain, especially wheat and barley. Farmers also grow tobacco, sugar cane, rice, maize, sugar beets, nuts, vegetables and many different kinds of fruit, particularly figs, apples, apricots and pomegranates. Sheep and goats are the most important livestock, supplying meat, wool, milk, skins and hair. Other livestock include cattle, water buffalo, camels and poultry. Iraq is also a breeding centre for Arabian horses.

  Did you know?
Muslin, the name of a cloth, comes from the name of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which was one of the earliest exporters of cotton.

  Did you know?
Iraqis begin work early while temperatures are cool. People frequently take a nap after finishing work around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m.

Last Updated: 3/24/09
Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School    500 Dorset Street    South Burlington, VT 05403    (802) 652-7100
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