Iraq Table of Contents
Reed Huts in the marshes of southern Iraq
IRAQI SOCIETY IS composed of sizable and distinct social groups whose differences and divisions have been only slowly and fitfully challenged by the emergence of a strong, centralized political regime and state apparatus. Moreover, there are regional and environmental differences between the scattered mountain villages whose economic base is rain-fed grain crops and the more densely populated riverine communities to the south that are dependent on intricate irrigation and drainage systems for their livelihood.
There are also linguistic and ethnic differences. The most important exception to the Arab character of Iraq is the large Kurdish minority, estimated at 19 percent of the population, or 3,092,820 in 1987. According to official government statistics, Turkomans and other Turkic-speaking peoples account for only 2 to 3 percent of the population. There was previously a large Iranian population settled around the Shia (see Glossary) holy cities of Karbala and An Najaf, and the southern port city of Basra; this element was largely expelled by government decree in 1971-72 and 1979-80, and in 1987 only an estimated 133,000 or 0.8 percent of the Iranian population remained.
Divisions along religious lines are deeprooted. Although upward of 95 percent of Iraq's population is Muslim, the community is split between Sunnis (see Glossary) and Shias; the latter group, a minority in the Arab world as a whole, constitutes a majority in Iraq. Numerous observers believe that the Shias make up between 60 and 65 percent of the inhabitants, although the data to support this figure are not firm (official government statistics set the number at only 55 percent). Of the non-Muslim communities, fragmented Christian sects cannot be more than 1 or 2 percent, concentrated mainly in the governorates of Nineveh and Dahuk. A formerly extensive Jewish community is to all practical purposes defunct. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948-49 rendered the situation of Iraqi Jews untenable and led to a mass exodus, both to Israel and to Iran in 1950.
Just before the Iran-Iraq War, the sharp cleavage between the rural and urban communities that formerly characterized Iraqi society had begun to break down as a result of policies instituted by the government. The war has accelerated this process. Large areas of the rural south have been devastated by continuous fighting, which in turn has triggered a massive rural migration to the capital. In the late 1980s, Iraqi and foreign observers agreed that for the nation's economic health this flight from the countryside would have to be reversed, and they anticipated that the government would undertake measures to accomplish this reversal once the war ended.
Data as of May 1988