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Ancient mesopotamia

Iraq's story begins with the Sumerians who flourished in the rich agricultural lands surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from around 4000 BC. In 1750 BC Hammurabi seized power and went on to dominate the annals of the Babylonian empire. Despite constant attacks from the Hittites and other neighbouring powers, Babylon would dominate the region until the 12th century BC, after which it went into a slow decline. It survived in a much reduced state, and Babylon remained an important cultural centre, but it was not until 626 BC that the New Babylonian Empire regained the extent of power that the Babylonians had enjoyed under Hammurabi.

By the 7th century BC, Assyrian civilisation had reached its high point under Ashurbanipal, whose capital at Nineveh was one of the great capitals of the world with cuneiform libraries, luxurious royal courts and magnificent bas-reliefs that survive to this day. And yet, it was the extravagance of Ashurbanipal's court and the debilitating military expenditure needed to keep his disparate empire together that sowed the seeds of Assyrian decline. Nineveh fell to the Medes in 612 BC. In 539 BC Babylon finally fell to the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great into whose empire Nineveh was also absorbed.

For the next 1200 years, Mesopotamia would be ruled by a string of empires, among them the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanid.

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Islamic iraq

In AD 637 the Arab armies of Islam swept north from the Arabian Peninsula and occupied Iraq. Their most important centres became Al-Kufa, Baghdad and Mosul.

In 749 the first Abbasid caliph was proclaimed at Al-Kufa and the Abbasids would go on to make Iraq their own. The founding of Baghdad by Al-Mansur saw the city become, by some accounts, the greatest city in the world. In 1258 Hulagu - a grandson of the feared Mongol ruler Gen- ghis Khan - laid waste to Baghdad, and killed the last Abbasid caliph. Political power in the Muslim world shifted elsewhere.

By 1638 Iraq had come under Ottoman rule. After a period of relative autonomy, the Ottomans centralised their rule in the 19th century, whereafter Iraqi resentment against foreign occupation crystallised even as the Ottomans undertook a massive programme of modernisation. The Ottomans held on until 1920, when the arrival of the British saw Iraq come under the power of yet another occupying force, which was at first welcomed then resented by Iraqis.

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Independent iraq

Iraq became independent in 1932 and the period that followed was distinguished by a succession of coups, counter-coups and by the discovery of massive reserves of oil. On 14 July 1958 the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup and Iraq became a republic.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War caused Iraq to turn to the Soviet Union for support, accusing the USA and UK of supporting Israel. On 17 July 1968 a bloodless coup by the Ba'ath Party put General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr in power.

In 1979 Saddam Hussein replaced Al-Bakr as president, the revolution in Iran took place and relations between the two countries sank to an all-time low. Saddam, increasingly concerned about the threat of a Shiite revolution in his own country, declared that Iraq wanted a return to exclusive control over the Shatt al-Arab River. Full-scale war broke out on 22 September 1980, with Iraqi forces entering Iran along a 500km front. The eight years of war that followed were characterised by human-wave infantry advances and the deliberate targeting of urban residential areas by enemy artillery, all for little territorial gain. A million lives were lost and the economic cost to Iraq alone is estimated at more than US$100 billion.

In March 1988, just prior to the war's end, the Iraqi government responded to the occupation of northern Iraq by Kurdish guerrillas by killing thousands of civilians, most infamously in Halabja where chemical weapons were used to devastating effect.

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Confrontation with the west

Saddam Hussein soon turned his attention to Kuwait. In July 1990 Saddam accused the Kuwaitis (with some justification) of waging 'economic warfare' against Iraq by attempting to artificially hold down the price of oil, and of stealing oil from the Iraqi portion of an oilfield straddling the border. On 2 August 1990 Iraq sent its troops and tanks into Kuwait and six days later annexed Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province. It was a costly miscalculation.

An international coalition - including a number of Arab states - gathered on Iraq's borders before launching a five-week bombing campaign followed by a ground offensive that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Controversy has persisted over the number of civilian and military deaths in Iraq and Kuwait: estimates range from 10, 000 to more than 100, 000.

As part of the ceasefire signed on 28 February 1991, Iraq agreed to comply fully with all UN Security Council resolutions, including full disclosure, inspection and destruction of the country's biological, chemical, ballistic and nuclear weapons stockpiles and development programmes.

Kuwait was free but the moral support offered by US president George Bush in calling on the Iraqi people to rise up was not backed by Allied military support and rebellions in the Shiite south and Kurdish north were brutally put down.

UN sanctions caused widespread malnutrition and medical care became inadequate throughout Iraq. Despite the much-abused UN oil-for-food programme, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) over half a million children died as a direct result of sanctions that did little - if anything - to undermine Saddam and his regime.

In early August 1998, weapons inspectors were denied access to a number of sites and the Iraqi government announced the suspension of all cooperation until the sanctions were removed. The USA, with British backing, responded with four days of air strikes in December.

On 20 March 2003, despite a lack of UN authority, the US launched missile attacks on Iraqi targets, followed soon after by a ground offensive that would sweep American forces into Baghdad, Saddam Hussein from power and most members of his regime into hiding. Tikrit, Saddam's home town, was one of the last cities to fall.

In July 2003 Saddam's feared sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a shoot-out with US troops. In December of the same year, a bedraggled Saddam Hussein was found cowering in a hole in Tikrit. Few Iraqis mourned his or his family's demise.

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