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Historically part of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations placed Iraq under British administration at the end of World War I, artificially creating the nation’s borders by combining multiple regions of Ottoman administration into a single country. After achieving independence in 1932, the Republic of Iraq was ruled by a series of military governments, including the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, which was unseated by Americanled forces in 2003. In April 2006, Hussein was formally charged with genocide and the murder of at least 50,000 Kurds. Iraq and the United States had previously clashed in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United Nations (UN) conducted inspections after the war, despite some resistance from the regime, to try to ensure against the construction of nuclear weapons.
In December 2005, the Iraqi interim government formally transferred power to a elected government. The political situation remained unstable despite the continued presence of United States and coalition forces, as guerrilla warfare continued. Ongoing sectarian violence has resulted in the displacement of at least 100,000 Iraqis. The Bush administration has been harshly criticized for justifying the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the country was stockpiling nuclear and biological weapons. However, the U.S. 9/11 Commission Report has concluded that no concrete evidence of weapons existed.
In addition to the petroleum and natural gas reserves that give Iraq its strategic importance and provide 10 percent of the world’s total, natural resources are limited to phosphates and sulfur. The oil industry accounts for 95 percent of foreign exchange earnings. Roughly 13 percent of Iraqi land is arable, but agriculture makes up only 7.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With a per capita income of $3,400, Iraq is ranked 153rd of 232 nations on world incomes. In 1996, the United Nations instituted an oil-for-food program designed to alleviate human suffering; however, prolonged war has hampered economic recovery.
Although no official poverty level is available, social indicators suggest major threats to human health. Life expectancy is only 68.7 years, and infant mortality is high at 48.64 deaths per 1,000 live births. The high death rate among children is partially responsible for the fertility rate of 4.28 children per female, which further threatens the livelihood of the poorest Iraqis. Between 25 to 30 percent of the population of 26,075,000 is unemployed. Over three-fourths of adult females and 44 percent of adult males are illiterate.
One-fifth of all Iraqis and 48 percent of rural residents have no sustained access to improved sanitation. Half of rural residents and 19 percent of all Iraqis lack access to safe drinking water. The UN Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports do not rank Iraq’s standard of living because of missing data. In addition to a 36-mile (58-kilometer) border along the Persian Gulf, Iraq shares borders with Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Most of Iraq consists of broad plains, but reedy marshes that include large flooded areas are found along the southern border with Iran. The northern sections of Iraq that border Iran and Turkey are mountainous. These areas experience cold winters and may see heavy snows that melt in the spring, producing extensive flooding in central and southern Iraq. Elsewhere, the Iraqi climate is typically desert with mild to cool winters and dry, hot summers. Elevations vary from sea level at the Persian Gulf to 11,844 feet (3,611 meters) at an unnamed peak in the northeastern corner of Iraq. Dust and sand storms are common.
The most serious prewar environmental problem in Iraq was created by the government’s draining and diverting feeder streams and rivers away from the inhabited marsh areas near An Nasiriyah. With 85 percent of the Mesopotamian wetlands destroyed, indigenous groups have been displaced and wildlife has been threatened. The shortage of potable water has had enormous health and environmental consequences. Drawing on the resources of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers requires cooperation with Turkey, and the two countries have had a rocky relationship. Urban areas of Iraq experience extensive air and water pollution. With 67.2 percent of the population urbanized, Iraq produces 0.3 percent of the world’s supply of carbon dioxide emissions. Outside urban areas, soil degradation and erosion further threaten the fragile environment, as does the desertification common in the Middle East. The government has not protected any of the land area. Eleven of 81 endemic mammal species are threatened, as are 11 of 140 endemic bird species.
The environmental cost of the current war has not yet been tallied, but it is certain to be extensive because much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. UNEP has identified potential problems with disease-causing pollution, waste management, and unexploded munitions. Insurgents have deliberately set fire to oil wells, producing a thick haze of dark smoke that exacerbates respiratory conditions.
After the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Iraq’s electric, transportation, water, and sanitation systems were verging on total collapse.
In the ancient city of Babylon, river reeds have encroached on historical sites such as the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, and signs of military occupation and fighting are everywhere. Habitats have been destroyed by war activity and human encroachment.
The Environment Protection and Improvement Council is the Iraqi government agency that bears major responsibility for implementing and monitoring environmental laws and regulations. In connection with other government agencies, this ministry has initiated programs designed to promote water conservation; prevent further damage to fragile ecosystems; and check air and water pollution, desertification, and soil degradation and erosion. International agencies continue to work with the Iraqi government in implementing these policies. Because Iraq is not fully integrated into the global community, the government has ratified only the international agreement on the Law of the Sea. The agreement on Environmental Modification has been signed but not ratified.
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Jeffrey Gettleman, “Ruined Treasures in Babylon Await an Iraq without Fighting,” New York Times, April 18, 2006;
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- UNEP, Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq (UNEP, 2003).