January 2020 saw missile attacks from Iran targeting American forces in Iraq, sparking the latest round of tensions in a country that has a long history of internal and external struggles. Join Active Minds as we review the history of Iraq with an eye toward U.S. involvement that has resulted in an American military presence in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. We will overlay the complex tensions between Sunni and Shi’a factions of Islam as we seek to understand Iraq’s past, present, and future.

Key Lecture Points

  • Present-day Iraq has long been the site of ethnic and religious conflict as well as a battleground for the competing ambitions of foreign powers.  WWI introduced western powers to the region.  With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain established a mandate over the newly created nation of Iraq including a population split between ethnic Arabs and Kurds, as well religious Sunnis and Shia. After the fall of a British-installed monarchy in 1958, the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party maintained Iraqi unity via dictatorship, most notably that of Saddam Hussein.
  • In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the First Gulf War. In 1991, the US led a coalition of 28 nations that forced Iraq out of Kuwait but stopped short of entering Baghdad and removing Hussein from power.  After the war Hussein was able to keep power by crushing all opposition, including uprisings by both Kurds and Shiites.
  • In 2003, the US (with a smaller coalition) invaded Iraq and toppled the Hussein regime.  Under the ensuing US occupation, Iraq descended into ethnic and religious conflict.  Iraq emerged in the post-Saddam era as a society for which establishing law and order and reconciling political differences remained immensely challenging.
  • In February 2009, newly elected President Obama announced he would withdraw American combat troops by August 2010, followed by a complete withdrawal of all US forces by December 2011.   After the final US withdrawal, questions of the extent to which Iraq could sustain itself peacefully, without a US troop presence, intensified. 
  • The Islamic State in Iraq in Syria (ISIS), provided the greatest threat to regional stability since the American invasion in 2003. In 2014, ISIS established a quasi-state in northern Iraq and eastern Syria and threatened to upend the Iraqi government. After three years of conflict, the Iraqi army, with the support of American and Western European partners, as well as Iran, defeated the Islamic State in 2017.
  • The Kurdish question continues to plague the stability of Iraq. A 2018 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan prompted a brief armed conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi government.
  • Protestors, dissatisfied with poor social services and perceived foreign interference, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi at the end of 2019. As the 2020s begin, political stability in Iraq remains an elusive goal.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe what events led up to the First Gulf War.  How did it set the stage for the current crisis in Iraq?
  • How does the history of Sunni-Shiite rivalries in Iraq complicate the effort to create a self-sustaining government in today’s Iraq?
  • What, if anything, can be learned from the successful fight against ISIS?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the war in Iraq was worth the cost in lives and money?  Why? Why not?
  • Do you think the United States bears responsibility for the rise of ISIS? What responsibility does the US have for supporting the Iraqi government?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Jon, Robertson. Iraq: A History. ONEWorld Publications, 2015. 336 pages.  The author describes the broad expanse of Iraq’s history, from its ancient empires to the aftermath of the American-led invasion and Iraq today.
    Click here to order
  • Meacham, Jon.  Destiny and Power.  Random House, 2015. 864 pages.  The author tells the life story of George H. W. Bush, drawing on the former President’s White House diaries, his wife’s diaries and private interviews.
    Click here to order
  • Atwan, Abdel Bari. Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. University of California Press, 2015. 256 pages.  This book explores the origins and operations of the Islamic State—its leadership structure, as well as strategies and recruiting methods.
    Click here to order
  • Kamber, Michael and Dexter Fikins.  Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq.  University of Texas Press, 2013. 279 pages.  This visual history of America’s nine year war In Iraq includes eyewitness accounts and interviews with photojournalists who covered the war and explores the role of the media in the war.
    Click here to order