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For hundreds of years, Baghdad was Islam’s greatest city—a center of art, science, and mathematics.

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  1. For hundreds of years, Baghdad was Islam’s greatest city—a center of art, science, and mathematics.

  2. Baghdad’s golden age ended during the Middle Ages, when Hulagu (a Mongol general) and then Tamerlane (pictured) destroyed the city. In the 1500s, the mighty Ottoman Turks took control of Baghdad and the two nearby cities of Basra and Mosul.

  3. The Turks remained in control until World War I, when the British and French encouraged Arabs living in Ottoman regions to revolt. In exchange, the Arabs were promised control over their own territories after the war ended.

  4. That promise was not honored. In 1920, the League of Nations put Britain in charge of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. The British decided to govern those three cities and the areas surrounding them as a single country, Iraq.

  5. Unifying the provinces brought together people who, though they were mostly Muslims, did not feel like they belonged together. Linguistic, cultural, and religious factors divided Baghdad’s Sunnis, Basra’s Shi‘is, and Mosul’s Kurds.

  6. To preserve order, the British killed many dissenters, often using warplanes, and empowered the Sunni minority to keep the majority Shi‘is and the Kurds in check.

  7. The discovery of oil in the Kurdish town of Kirkuk in 1927 intensified Britain’s desire to retain influence in Iraq. Although the British officially handed over sovereignty to the Iraqis in 1932, they maintained a military presence in support of the Iraqi government.

  8. Dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government and its British protectors mounted among Iraqi military officers. In 1958, Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim assumed power in a coup.

  9. Qasim antagonized the United States by purchasing arms from the Soviet Union and nationalizing oil fields promised by the previous Iraqi government to the U.S. company Shell and its partners in the (misleadingly named) Iraq Petroleum Company.

  10. In 1963, the CIA backed a coup that saw Qasim’s execution and the rise to power of a new party, the Ba‘th. One of this party’s rising stars was Saddam Hussein.

  11. Once in power, the Ba‘thists sought to consolidate their power. They created a 50,000-man militia, terrorized citizens into informing on each other, and concentrated their power in the hands of two men, Admad Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein.

  12. Saddam took charge in 1979, having engineered the resignation of al-Bakr and murdered 21 party members, including several friends, who he felt had not supported him with enough enthusiasm.

  13. As Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein almost immediately provoked war with his eastern neighbor. On September 23, 1980, he sent troops into Iran to enforce a historically dubious territorial claim.

  14. The war lasted until 1988 and resulted in more than a million Iraqi and Iranian deaths. As part of its strategy to weaken Iran, the United States provided Iraq with military intelligence and financial support.

  15. Although the war ended in a tie, Iraq emerged with the more powerful army and—after using chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds suspected of disloyalty—the more fearsome reputation. But Iraq was broke, and low oil prices were hindering an economic recovery.

  16. Looking to ease Iraq’s debt, Saddam ordered the invasion of oil-rich Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Thousands of U.S. troops were sent to protect Saudi Arabia against continued Iraqi aggression, and stringent sanctions were approved by the UN Security Council.

  17. Early in 1991, when it became clear that Saddam had no intention of withdrawing his troops, a U.S.-led coalition carried out a devastating air attack against strategic Iraqi sites.

  18. A ground attack followed. After watching his troops get slaughtered by the thousands, Saddam agreed to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

  19. After the fighting, Shi‘is and Kurds rose up against Saddam. But Iraqi forces massacred them, as U.S. troops—having been instructed not to intervene— stood by and watched.

  20. After pictures of Kurdish suffering were shown worldwide, the United States and Britain enforced no-fly zones in Shi‘i and Kurdish areas.

  21. Meanwhile, sanctions were left in place until UN inspectors could certify that Saddam had dismantled all of Iraq’s chemical and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

  22. Iraqi scientists played a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with the inspectors, cooperating only up to a point and denying access to key sites. The inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 before they had completed their job.

  23. Around that time, members of an influential conservative think tank, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), were calling on U.S. president Bill Clinton to adopt a more aggressive policy toward Iraq. Apart from a brief bombing campaign in December 1998, Clinton persisted with sanctions.

  24. When George W. Bush became president in 2001, many PNAC members—notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz—moved into positions of power.

  25. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to side with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, lobbying world leaders and preparing Americans for a second war with Iraq.

  26. In the belief that Saddam had retained his WMD programs, the UN Security Council called on Saddam to readmit UN weapons inspectors in November 2002.

  27. The inspections proved inconclusive, and President Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair declared war on Iraq in March 2003.

  28. The war’s major combat phase passed quickly. U.S. and British troops routed the Iraqi resistance and forced Saddam Hussein and other government ministers into exile.

  29. After the fall of Saddam’s government, the United States established the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and installed Paul Bremer as its head. Bremer disbanded, but did not disarm, the Iraqi army.

  30. Some of these men, now unemployed but still armed, joined up with others ex-Ba‘thists to stage attacks on U.S. and British troops, international aid workers, and UN representatives.

  31. These men, called insurgents, killed not only foreigners but also hundreds of Iraqis who had taken jobs with the CPA.

  32. Meanwhile, the search for WMD—the justification for the war—turned up nothing. The hunt for government officials proved more successful; Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003.

  33. U.S. troops—better trained to win wars than keep the peace—antagonized the Iraqi people by repeatedly failing to distinguish between insurgents and civilians. A few U.S. soldiers elicited worldwide disgust by abusing inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

  34. Against a backdrop of a growing insurgency, the CPA handed official sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 28, 2004. But the transfer did nothing to slow the violence.

  35. A Shi‘i militia loyal to hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought police in Najaf, and Falluja—a poor city in the suburbs Baghdad—established itself as a hotbed of insurgent activity.

  36. A day before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, U.S. forces stormed Falluja, while planes dropped massive bombs on strategic sites. Buildings throughout the city were destroyed, and many civilians were killed.

  37. On January 30, 2005, Iraq held its own elections. Millions of people ignored threats from insurgents to cast their votes for a new government that would write a new constitution.

  38. Amidst considerable controversy—particularly surrounding the role of Islam in Iraqi society, women’s rights, and the balance of power between Baghdad and the provinces—a constitution was completed and then approved in a nationwide referendum.

  39. As the drafters of the Iraqi constitution were ending their work in the summer of 2005, the nature of the violence appeared to change. Attacks on coalition troops declined somewhat, while deaths resulting from sectarian feuding increased dramatically.

  40. Sunni bombings of crowded Shi‘i holy mosques and the murders of Sunni men by Shi‘i death squads (sometimes working with Iraqi security forces) accounted for the killings of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

  41. On December 15, 2005, amidst more threats of violence, Iraqis again went to the polls, this time to vote for members of parliament. The Shi‘i religious parties were the big winners, followed by the Kurds, and lastly the Sunnis.

  42. Sectarian violence intensified in 2006, particularly after the bombing of an important Shi‘i mosque in Samarra, a volatile city north of Baghdad.

  43. Back in the United States, President Bush and his administration continued to insist that Iraq was making impressive strides toward democracy, while many observers—including Anthony Zinni and several other retired generals—warned of civil war.

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