Iraq’s population is thought to be just under 35 million, roughly the same as that of Canada and greater than any other Arab country apart from Egypt, Algeria, and possibly Sudan.
Most Iraqis, and almost all Iraqis who identify as Shiite Muslims, live in the low-elevation Mesopotamian plain, the part of the map below that is coloured in the darkest shade of green.
The only significant city to have a considerable Shiite population outside of this area is, perhaps, the city of Samarra, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. Yet Samara lies just barely beyond this Iraqi Shiite heartland, and is relatively small. It had 350,000 or so inhabitants prior to the US invasion of the country in 2003. In 2006 and then again in 2007 the Al-Askari Shrine, a mosque that was built in Samarra in 944 AD, was bombed, leading Shiite groups in Iraq to retaliate by forcing many Sunnis to leave their homes in Baghdad.
The largest cities in Iraq’s Shiite region are not located in the region’s centre, but rather around its outer edges. The largest by far is Baghdad, located in the north of the Shiite core region. Baghdad is perhaps 3-5 times more populous than any other city in Iraq; it may be home to nearly one in four Iraqis. It is maybe the most populous city in the entire Arab world, outside of Cairo. Historically it was the capital of an enormous caliphate, stretching from Central Asia nearly to the Atlantic Ocean, during most of the years between 762 AD and 1258 AD. Even as recently as the 1970s, before Iraq fought three major wars between 1980 and the present day, Baghdad was one of the leading cultural and commercial cities in the Arab world.
Baghdad has historically been the place where Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni areas meet, and where minority populations like Kurds, Christians, Jews, and Turkic peoples have all lived in significant numbers as well. Though the conflicts in Iraq during recent years and decades has changed this to a great extent, with many minorities leaving (the Jewish population, for example, has dropped from around 50,000 in 1900, which was perhaps a quarter of the city’s total population at the time, to nearly zero today) Baghdad remains the heart of the country.
Baghdad’s existence has probably been one of the main impediments to, and arguments against, splitting the country into three separate states as many have recently been advocating for. However because of its diversity and centrality, it was also the site of many of the violent deaths during the (in some ways ongoing) civil war. Since 2003 the city’s neighbourhoods have become more divided by sect, while the share of its population that identifies as Sunni has shrunk in size due to the fleeing of Sunnis and the inward migration of Shiites from southern Iraq.
Baghdad in 2003 Baghdad in 2007
Baghdad’s geographic significance comes from being located in the only spot, apart from the swampy southern coastlands of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come close to meeting one another. Around Baghdad the Tigris and Euphrates are just 30-40 km or so apart from one another, compared to about 150-200 km apart in most of southern Iraq, 120 km or so apart in the area to Baghdad’s immediate north, and 220-300 km apart in the northern Iraq-Syria region.
Baghdad is located 530 km from Iraq’s only coast (on the Persian Gulf), 450 km from Iraq’s border with Turkey, and 475 km from its western, desert border with Jordan. It is about 700 km from Tehran, 740 km from Aleppo and Damascus, 95o km from Riyadh, and 1300-1450 km from Mecca, Dubai, Cairo, Ankara, and Crimea.
Apart from Baghdad, the biggest Shiite city in Iraq, maybe even twice as populous as any other, is Basra. Basra is located in the only other place where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, just 95 km or so north of the coast of the Persian Gulf, and just around 20 km from the Iranian border and 40 km from the Kuwaiti border. Because it is located just 4 metres above sea level (compared to 35 metres for Baghdad), Basra’s climate is an extremely hot one, with temperatures hitting average daily highs of around 40 degrees celsius (105-ish fahrenheit) for almost five months a year.
Could Basra soon have the world’s tallest building?
The fact that this southernmost area of Iraq around Basra has the country’s only direct access to the sea, and that this access is funnelled narrowly and vulnerably through a strip of land that is only about 15 km wide, sandwiched between the oil-rich Arab monarchy of Kuwait and the oil-rich Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province of southwestern Iran, was probably one of the reasons why Iraq went to war against Iran throughout the 1980s and then attempted to annex Kuwait in 1990.
Grabbing Kuwait and Khuzestan would give Iraq unfettered access to the Persian Gulf, greatly increased oil resources, and a mountainous rather than wide open border with southern Iran. Kuwait alone, in spite of having a population of just 3.4 million, produces so much oil that its GDP is thought to be roughly 75% percent as large as that of Iraq itself, and 40% percent as large as Iran’s.
Today, however, it is not clear whether Kuwait and Khuzestan have majority-Arab populations as they likely did in the past. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is now thought by some to be foreign workers who have come to the country mainly from South Asia. Some have estimated that 30-40% of Kuwait’s Muslim population is Shiite, though it is difficult to be certain. Khuzestan’s population of 4-5 million, meanwhile, has perhaps become majority Persian; statistics cannot really be trusted in this area, given that they can be politicized.
The other largest cities of the Shiite region of Iraq also lie along the region’s edges rather than in its centre; they are located either along the Tigris River, as for example the cities of Amarah and Samarra are, or along the Euphrates River, as the world’s two holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala are.
The Shiite region of Iraq is divided, in a certain geographical sense, along both north-south and east-west lines. The north-south divide is between landlocked Baghdad and coastal Basra, the region’s two major cities, with Baghdad located close to its northern extreme and Basra close to its southern one.
The east-west divide is between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the two rivers were historically separated from one another by marshlands in some places, which according to Wikipedia “used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia” before being drained during the second half of the 20th century — mainly by the government of Saddam Hussein, for political reasons. “After the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, the marshes have partially recovered but drought along with upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria, and Iran have hindered the process”. The “Marsh Arabs“, formerly half a million strong, are themselves considered to be a unique Iraqi ethnic group.
The Euphrates directly borders the Arabian Desert (Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Ramadi are each located on the Arabian side of the river), whereas the Tigris runs closely parallel with Iran’s Zagros Mountains, which rise to heights as great as in the Colorado Rockies or Swiss Alps. Given its topography, Iraq has rarely been able to project force into the Zagros (though Saddam Hussein tried to do so during the deadly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s); the Iranians, on the other hand, have often been able to influence politics within Iraq and occasionally even invade Iraq directly.
The Zagros, in Iran’s Lorestan province near the Iraqi border
The division between Basra and Baghdad (such that it is) was seen to a certain extent in 2008, just prior to the US military withdrawal from the country, when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved a significant offensive mission by the Iraqi Army aimed at pushing what was arguably the country’s main Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, out of Basra.
The Basra-Bagdhad divide goes back much further in history, however. Even when Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, the country was divided into three administrative “vilayets”: Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre, and Mosul in the north. The Ottoman era often saw the Europeans intrude into or make alliances with Basra, notably the Portuguese in the 17th century, and later the British. The British would return during the recent war: they were tasked with managing Basra while the Americans focused on other areas of the country.
Ottoman vilayets circa 1900
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region also contains both north-south and east-west divisions. It’s two largest cities by far are Baghdad, which is located at the southern tip of the Sunni areas, and Mosul, which is located just 100 km from Iraq’s northern Turkish border and is currently held by ISIS fighters. This is the basis of its north-south division; its east-west division comes from the Tigris and Euphrates being located much further apart from one another north of Baghdad than in the south (where, around Shiite Arab cities like Basra, Karbala, and Kut, the waterways almost or completely converge), with desert lying in between them.
According to Wikipedia, “The Arabic of Mosul is considered to be much softer in its pronunciation than that of Baghdad Arabic, bearing considerable resemblance to Levantine dialects, particularly Aleppan Arabic. …Mosul Arabic is heavily influenced by the languages of the many ethnic minority groups which co-exist in the city: Kurmanji Kurdish, the Shengali (Ezdiki) of Yazidis, Turkmen, Armenian, and Neo-Aramaic. Each minority language is spoken alongside North Mesopotamian Arabic.”
You might want to take this map with a grain of salt
“…Before 2014 takeover by ISIS, Mosul population comprised roughly of 60% Sunni Arabs; 25% Kurds, 10% Turkmens and 5% Assyrian. Following the takeover by ISIS, nearly all the population who were not Sunni Arabs (coreligionists of ISIS), fled or forced out, that is, 35% of the residents or just over half a million people.”
“Mosul, although not at a particularly high elevation, still receives much more rain than most of Iraq. Rainfall is close to three times that of Baghdad and over twice that of Basra”. Indeed, unlike the arid cities along the Euphrates, Mosul has a relatively populous hinterland, as it is located next to the foothills of mountains both to its east and to its north. Mosul is just 75 km from Erbil, the comparatively successful capital city of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. “After the 1991 uprisings by the Kurds Mosul did not fall within the Kurdish-ruled area, but it was included in the northern no-fly zone imposed and patrolled by the United States and Britain between 1991 and 2003″.
The Erbil Citadel
Mosul is one of the two most important cities which lie on the border between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish areas. The other is Kirkuk, which is less populous than Mosul but is where much of Iraq’s oil is produced. The oil in this Arab-Kurdish borderland has led to conflict during the past decade; and of course ISIS and the Iraqi Kurds continue to do battle today. According to the map below, both Mosul and Kirkuk (spelled Karkuk) are surrounded on three sides by the Kurdish-inhabited territories, near to the mountainous Kurdish border regions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Three months ago, the Turkish military entered northern Iraq and has closely approached Mosul . A month before that, according to Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Kurdish forces, backed by American airstrikes, cut the highway that connected Mosul to the ISIS base in Syria. There are still a few roads leading into Mosul that ISIS can use to resupply its fighters, but the Kurds are moving to cut them, too. Very soon, the ISIS fighters inside Mosul will be isolated.” The Kurdish position has been complicated, however, by Kurdish-Turkish relations, which have partially deteriorated of late as a result of Turkish politics and the Syrian civil war’s effect on the Syrian Kurdish group the YPG/PYD.
Mosul is located along the Tigris River, north of the place where, in Syria, the Euphrates makes a sudden sharp turn westward towards Aleppo and the Mediterranean Sea. As such, unlike in most other cities in Iraq, Mosul sits at a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates are relatively far from one another (though still only 430 km apart). This has allowed Mosul to serve historically as a sort of oasis in the desert for east-west trade travelling between northern Iran (and Asia) and the Mediterranean (and Europe). Mosul sits almost exactly between Tehran and the Mediterranean, in fact. It is also located halfway between Basra and Russia’s southern border; in other words, between the Persian Gulf and the Black and Caspian seas.
In late 2004 the US attack on Mosul was concurrent with the one on Fallujah, the latter battle arguably being the deadliest in the entire US-Iraq War. In 2014, six month prior to the ISIS seizure of Mosul (and Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk), ISIS “retook” Fallujah, which is just 40 km from Baghdad. ISIS also took control of the large dam upriver of Mosul, which according to Wikipedia has the fourth largest reserve capacity of any hydroelectric facility in the Middle East. Kurdish forces, with help from the US and Iraqi militaries, have since captured the dam.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region, in spite of being relatively small in population because it is located in the desert, and also landlocked, has some advantages that Shiite Iraq does not. It has proximity to the Mediterranean, as well as access to the Mediterranean via the Euphrates which in Syria reaches as close to 200 km from it. The entire distance from the Persian Gulf to any part of the Eastern Mediterranean coast, in fact, is only about 1300 km.
This Mediterranean access, however, is partly why the Shiite Iraqis and Iranians would prefer to keep Syria’s non-Sunni Assad government and Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah in place, so as to block Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority from working together to export Iraqi oil to the West via the Mediterranean and hence become powerful.
The Sunni Arab region’s upriver location, moreover, provides a potential advantage within Iraq as, especially towards the south, the country is often lacking in rainfall and dependent upon agriculture that can be devastatingly flooded by the actions of northern dams. In addition, because the Euphrates winds about a lot within the Sunni region (see map below), its cities can often be surrounded on three sides by the river and on the fourth by both the desert and the incline of the walls of the Euphrates Valley, giving them a defensible position. A series of three lakes, finally, running 200 km from north to south, helps to divide Baghdad and southern Iraq from the Euphrates’ Sunni-inhabited northwest.
It has become very popular to point out that Iraq’s borders, and particularly the Iraqi-Syrian border, are “artificial”, imposed on the region by the British and French in the aftermath of the First World War. This statement is not untrue, but nor is it necessarily as straightforward as many have come to believe.
Those saying that Iraq’s borders are artificial often ignore a number of facts. First is that, unless Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and perhaps Lebanon are merged into a single state (a state which, given its position linking two oceans and containing the most oil anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, could perhaps become the top power in the Middle East), or unless a united Kurdistan declares its independence in territories that are today part of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran (a declaration that could, and to an extent already has, led to war by those countries against Kurdish forces), then “artificial” borders must be drawn somewhere through the region.
Second, they ignore the fact that Iraq’s borders are actually not as random, geographically, as they are given credit for, as we discuss further below. Third, they ignore the fact that it is not only the West that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refused to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.
And fourth, they often ignore the fact that the most “artificial” aspect of Iraq’s borders is not the fact that the borders themselves are drawn improperly, but rather is that Kuwait has been allowed to exist independently of Iraq at all. Why Kuwait, with its $53,000 per capita income, its nearly-autocratic monarchy, and its position that in effect walls-in Iraq’s only direct outlet to the ocean, should be allowed to maintain its political independence from Iraq remains a question, arguably, for those claiming that the real crux of Iraq’s problem is the “artificial” international borders between Iraq and Syria, or the lack of international borders between Sunni Arab Iraq, Shiite Arab Iraq, and Sunni Kurdish Iraq.
I am not saying that Kuwait should definitely be refolded into Iraq like Hong Kong and Macau were into mainland China or like Gibraltar may be into Spain. I am saying, though, that things may be a lot more complicated where borders are concerned than they are often acknowledged to be.
Iraq-Syria: The valley of the Euphrates is generally much wider on the Syrian side of the border than on the Iraqi side of the border. Until the river gets close to Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, by far Iraq’s largest by territory size) and Baghdad, where the river valley widens out again, the valley generally extends less than 100 meters out from either side of the banks of the river in Iraq, whereas on the Syrian side of the border it extends around 5000 meters out on average:
Zooming in on the border:
It is on the Syrian side of the border that the river cities of Raqqa, the “capital city” of ISIS, and Deir al-Zour, a Syrian provincial capital that has been fought over intensely by ISIS and Syrian military forces, are located. Notably, however, the entire Euphrates valley between Baghdad and Aleppo is actually barely larger in size than Rhode Island. The maps one sometimes sees in the media of “ISIS-controlled territory” are, for this reason, somewhat misleading, as in many cases they do not differentiate between desert and non-desert areas.
The Iraqi-Syrian border was drawn in such a way as to give Syria all of the significant tributary of the Euphrates that meets up with the Euphrates just south of Deir al-Zour (see map below), and to give Iraq all of the large, “lonely”mountain of Sinjar (lonely in that it does not link up with any other mountain ranges), which got attention earlier in 2015 as a result of a humanitarian crisis occurring there. You can see the mountain in the image below, west of Mosul and next to Syria’s border to the mountain’s west and north. Sinjar City, in the shadow of the mountain, had a population estimated at 90,000, mainly of the Yazidi religious and ethnic minority that groups like ISIS have deemed heretical or “devil worshippers”.
In Syria’s northeast the border with Iraq juts out eastward in order to allow the Tigris to very briefly serve as the border between the two countries. On the adjacent Turkish-Iraq border, however, the border swings back and forth from one side of the river to the other; it is a more “artificial” border, perhaps. The Iraqi-Jordanian desert corridor, meanwhile, is extremely artificial, yet it serves the useful purpose (in theory, at least) of giving Iraq a link to Jordan’s Red Sea coast or, via Israel, to the Mediterranean. Though it is across the desert, in which ISIS now has influence, Baghdad is just 785 km from Amman and 860 km from Jerusalem.
Finally, there is the Kurdish border. Though this border artificially divides Kurdish peoples from one another, with most Kurds living in Turkey (even though, from an ethnolinguistic perspective, Kurds are more similar to Iranians than to Turks or Arabs), the Kurdish borders between Iraq and Turkey and Iraq and Iran both adhere for the most part to the geographic barrier of the Zagros Mountains, as can be seen in the map below.
This does not mean that the Kurds do not “deserve a state of their own”, of course, but, given the height of these mountains, it does mean that border is hardly arbitrary. The Kurds have, in fact, many internal linguistic and political divisions themselves, reflecting the ruggedness of their mountain landscape; these internal divisions are not usually mentioned in the media outside of the Middle East, which has become generally pro-Kurdish.
You might want to take this map with a grain of salt too
Still, Kurdish groups have, at least for the time being, been able to overcome their internal differences within the borders of Iraq. According to Martin Lewis of Stanford, “In constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order”.
Finally, here’s one last map for the road. It shows, again, just how complicated this region can be: