The problem of the history of Iraq, it might be argued, is that for too many people it starts with the so-called first Gulf or Iraq War in 1991, takes in the second Iraq War in 2003, perhaps also the discovery and execution of Saddam Hussein, not forgetting oil, and it might then conclude with something about sectarian violence, utter chaos, ISIS and perhaps refugees.
But millennia before the US-led invasions of 1991 and 2003, Iraq played a leading role in world history. On the one hand, damned for its advantageous Middle Eastern location (with the Tigris and Euphrates running through it), it was the cradle of civilisation and as far as we know the location of the world’s first towns and cities, dating back to 5000-6000 BCE.
Reflecting this history and in fewer than 400 pages, John Robertson’s Iraq. A History is a masterful book that takes readers on the most remarkable of journeys, starting in ancient Mesopotamia. It skilfully takes in countless ‘firsts’ in world history, and dissects geographical, cultural, tribal, religious and economic factors that continue to feed into what is now called Iraq.
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There are great civilisations, from the Sumer in the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates, the first writing in the form of Cuneiform, the Code of Hammurabi from Old Babylonia, great architecture and rulers, not forgetting countless invasions, just some of whom have been Genghis Kahn, Arab tribes, the Ottomans, British and Americans. Affluence and plenty are as much a part of Iraq’s history as the suffering, and even its greatest cities have been destroyed, sometimes rebuilt.
The modern day destruction of large parts of the country, however,' jars, not simply because it is for us the ‘history of today’, but because it was so patently avoidable. This should never absolve Saddam Hussein from responsibility for the crimes he inflicted on his own people, but the catastrophe from the West’s sanctions onwards in the 1990s must inform future decisions. It’s worth quoting Robertson on the effect of the sanctions":
As Iraq’s water, sanitation, power-generation, and medical systems became increasingly dilapidated and dysfunctional, disease and malnutrition felled thousands of Iraqis, including by some estimates 8880,00 Iraqi children under five years of age. An assessment of the impact of these sanctions that was published in 1999 spotlighted the irony that the number of Iraqi deaths they had caused exceeded the number ‘slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.’
Today Iraqis – with millions still displaced due to the 2003 US/British invasion and the subsequent terror inflicted by ISIS – continue their attempt to come to terms with the devastation inflicted on their country. Many mourn the destruction, some are no longer able to return home, and some even long for the seemingly old stability of the Saddam decades.
So, in the wake of such recent history, it’s self-evident that there is no good news from Iraq, isn’t it? Actually, no, this is far from incorrect. Thankfully, decent journalists are returning to Iraq, reporting accurately that despite everything, a sense of ‘normality’ is slowly returning. Families visit shopping malls, watch films, cook and discuss the future.
Of course, with ISIS still in existence, long-term water-supply and general infrastructure challenges, economic dislocation (and an over-reliance on planet-harmful oil extraction, coveted by many countries), alongside the inevitable outside interests, such as Iran, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a society to a degree split on religious or ethnic grounds, it doesn’t pay to be complacent. Indeed, many doubt the viability of the country, suggesting it cannot be held together in the medium term.
But as Robertson’s book shows, though there is no quick-fix solution, Iraq should not be written off – if for nothing else than a country with such a long and fascinating history surely has something to offer modern civilisations.