Iraq is a big, diverse country at perhaps the most complicated juncture in its history. And while the major media outlet focus on the latest Baghdad bombings and the country's slow crawl toward democracy, it's up to mental_floss to point out some of the nation's more neglected - and fascinating - features.
1. Iraq is Actually Two Countries
Imagine you're taking a road trip from Alabama to New York, and somewhere around West Virginia, you get stopped at a checkpoint by a bunch of gun-toting guys in uniforms demanding to know who you are, where you're going, and why. If you give the wrong answer, they'll turn you away or, worse, shoot you. Unthinkable? Not in Iraq. The northern quarter of the country, despite officially being part of Iraq, has been functionally independent since 1991. That's the year a group of Kurdish guerillas finally drove out Saddam Hussein's army after decades of rebellion. Today, there's a line that begins at Mosul and runs roughly between Baghdad and Kirkuk to Mandali; everything north of that line is part of Kurdistan and is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). If you want to go there, you'll have to get past the KRG's velvet rope first.
Kurdistan's 5 million Iraqi Kurds trace their roots to the Halafians, some of the Middle East's first occupants. To Kurds, Arabs are just the latest in a long line of invaders. Finally free to chart their own course after the 1991 rebellion, the Kurds set up a democratic society complete with courts, police, an elected assembly, and a thriving media system. When U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Kurdish troops even lent a hand. As a reward, the United States helped integrate the KRG into the new Iraqi government. Consequently, Kurdistan's autonomy is enshrined in the new Iraqi constitution, and the current Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, is a former member of the KRG. These days, Kurdistan is the most progressive, peaceful, and prosperous region of Iraq. The KRG drills for its own oil, controls its borders, and manages a large budget. And, unlike the rest of the country, it's so successful at policing its territory that few foreign troops have set up camp in the region.
2. Iraq was Created by Winston Churchill.
The British originally created the big chunk of land we now call Iraq in the wake of World War I. At the time, Great Britain's colonial secretary was a young man by the name of Winston Churchill. Strangely enough, he, more than anyone, is responsible for arbitrarily drawing up the borders than shoehorned diverse and un-neighborly peoples (namely, Kurds and Arabs) into the same crowded country. During the war, the British government convinced Syria's Hashemite tribe to rebel against the German-allied Ottoman Empire. As a reward, the Brits promised the tribe it could rule Syria. But the British government was double-dealing; it had also promised Syria to the French, a far more powerful ally. So, after the war, the Brits gave Iraq to the Hashemite leader as a consolation prize.
The king's new subjects didn't take kindly to being pawns in the Brit's post-war plotting, and soon rebelled. On several occasions during the ensuing decades, Britain was forced to intervene to keep the monarchy on life support. In 1941, for instance, British and Allied battalions invaded to keep Iraq from siding with the Germans in World War II. Consequently, in 2003, when British forces occupied southern Iraq yet again, they set up shop in some of the same Brit-building facilities that had survived from the 1940s and 1950s. During a 2005 meeting between Iraqi officials and representatives of the British Foreign Office in the southern city of Basra, Iraqi Minister of Transportation Salam Al Maliki wryly noted, "You've been here before."
3. Iraq is Diverse: It Just Doesn't Look That Way
Everybody talks about the Shi'ites and Sunnis, but not everyone there is Muslim. Around five percent of the population is Christian, and in the north, some villages still practice an ancient non-theistic religion called Yazdanism. Ethnically speaking, Iraq is mostly Arab, though there are large numbers of Kurds (who are descended from Europeans), as well as Turkoman (from Turkey) and Persians (from Iran). And before the rise of Saddam Hussein's oppressive Ba'ath Party in 1968, there were even small numbers of Jews.
Despite the diversity, most Iraqis have similar features, with dark hair and dark eyes. Only occasionally will you see blue eyes or light-color hair. In fact, redheads are so rare that, upon meeting them, most Iraqis will fail to notice any other characteristics. In 2004, Iraqi police went looking for redhead Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, one of Hussein's deputies and a war criminal. The cops apparently arrested the first redhead they found - a man who, besides sharing his hair color, looked nothing like Al Douri. Fortunately, the misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, and the innocent man was released.
4. Iraqi Needs Trash Collectors
Since the start of its war with Iran in 1980, Iraq has suffered a serious lack of economic investment. The infrastructure is disastrous; roads are crumbling, the electricity grid is in shambles, and in most of the country, there hasn't been regular trash pickup in more than 20 years. Unfortunately, when money gets tight, civic functions such as garbage collection are some of the first things to go. These days, litter and food scraps pile up on the streets until someone with a truck musters the initiative to haul it to the city limits. Garbage fields sprawl over hundreds of acres on the outskirts of Iraq's urban areas. In fact, the rubbish is so deep in places that, during the hot summer months, it spontaneously combusts, sparking raging garbage fires that can burn for days. The putrid garbage fires do have an upside, albeit a depressing one: They keep down the number of aggressive wild dogs that live at the dumps.
5. Iraq is Short on Gas
In addition to the festering piles of garbage, those long decades of under-investment have left Iraq short on both oil refineries and gas stations. All of the country's crude is shipped to Kuwait or Jordan - or even overseas - to be refined, then a small portion of it shipped back as gasoline. At the few existing gas stations, the lines of cars can be several miles long, meaning would-be customers may literally wait for days to fill their tanks.
The long lines have encouraged a thriving gasoline black market. Along the road outside most gas stations, you'll find kids clutching funnels and guarding plastic jugs of cloudy yellow gasoline that they've bought from the station and are now selling for twice the government-mandated price. For those Iraqis who can afford the inflated price, it's often worth avoiding the long wait for legal gas, and roadside black market traders do steady business. The contraband cuts down on gas station revenues, and consequently, the government's cut of gas taxes, so U.S. forces in northern cities such as Mosul are trying to help out by cracking down, sometimes giving away the confiscated gas to motorists for free.
6. Iraqis Love Orange Soda and Bad Action Movies
No kidding. Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shi'ite Arabs in the south have little in common, but they share at least one thing with each other and with all of Iraq's diverse peoples: They love orange soda. You can get it in open-air markets and at roadside booths. You can buy it by the cup at kebab stands. And if you ever visit an Iraqi dignitary, you'll be offered tea, coffee ... or orange soda.
Iraqi's obsession with American-style guilty pleasures doesn't end with soft drinks, though. American cinema is all the rage, too. There aren't any movie theaters in Iraq, but DVD players are common. And because there's no UPS service (to say nothing of Wal-Marts or Best Buys), shops selling bootleg DVDs have sprung up to meet demand. Bootlegs of new movies, often taped in theaters with video cameras, are available in Iraq just weeks after their release in the States. Classic 1980s action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are also favorites.
Granted, American troops are buying this stuff, too. Soldiers call the bootleg outlets, "Hadji shops" (hadj, or hajj being the annual Muslim pilgrimage), and many U.S. bases in Iraq even have their own on site. Not willing to shell out $35.99 for a Rambo Trilogy Ultimate Edition DVD set? You can buy the high-quality bootleg at your local Hadji shop for about five bucks.
7. Iraq isn't Putting Out as Much Oil as it Used to.
Iraq is sitting atop more than 110 billion barrels of crude oil, the second-largest reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia's. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, however, the country's oil output is actually falling. Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq exported more than 3 million barrels per day, mostly through the "oil-for-food" program. But today, exports stand a little more than 1 million barrels per day. The problem is that Iraq's entire oil infrastructure - from pumps to pipelines to terminals - is suffering from years of neglect and, more recently, constant sabotage by insurgents. Completely rebuilding the foundation would cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete, even under the best circumstances. But with the Iraqi insurgency spreading an foreign investment drying up, it might never happen.
Assuming it does, there's still no guarantee Baghdad will profit. Half of Iraq's oil lies in few large fields near the city of Kirkuk, which is dominated by a large Kurdish population. Per the new Iraqi constitution, Kirkuk residents will decide in a 2007 referendum whether to remain part of Iraq at large or to join Kurdistan. If they choose Kurdistan, it's likely all revenue from Kirkuk's oil will flow into Kurdish coffers. What's more, the only exploration for new oil that's happening in Iraq is actually in Kurdistan. In the fall of 2005, Norwegian firms located sizable new oil fields under the northern city of Dohuk. The Kurds have vowed to keep revenue from the drilling for themselves. Baghdad has protested, of course, but is powerless to do anything about it.
8. The Iraqi Navy is Built Strong.
Fifteen years ago, Iraq's navy boasted dozens of Soviet-built missile boats, but two U.S.-led bombing campaigns put most of those ships on the ocean floor. So, in 2003, the Iraqi navy started from scratch, adding new boats and recalling retired sailors. Now, sallying forth in five Chinese-built 90-foot-long patrol vessels, the reborn navy patrols the country's two offshore oil terminals alongside warships from the United States and its allies.
With only about 36 miles of coastline, Iraq might not seem like the kind of country that needs a navy, but those three dozen miles are some of the most valuable in the world. Although declining, the majority of Iraq's national revenue still comes from oil exports, and a majority of the oil leaves the country by way of just two small pipes that extend from the southern port of Umm Qasr to two terminals in the Persian Gulf. Tanker ships line up at those terminals to fill up with millions of dollars worth of crude. In other words, you could bankrupt Iraq pretty fast if you took out the pipes or the terminals, and terrorists know it. In April 2005, suicide bombers attacked one of the terminals, killing three Americans.
As if it didn't have its hands full guarding the oil, the Iraqi navy also has to watch for livestock smugglers. In order to avoid fees, boaters try to sneak sheep into Iraq from Iran and other countries. Consequently, Iraqi patrol boats regularly play tedious cat-and-mouse games with smugglers, motoring out to intercept them despite limited fuel supplies and temperatures exceeding 120°F.
9. Iraq is Taking to the Air
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, with its airports and airplanes crippled by bombing attacks, Iraq offered little air travel. That began to change after the 2003 invasion, though. The defunct Iraqi Airways pulled itself back together, and charter airlines began regular flights into rebuilt airports. In fact, when the first Iraqi Airways 727 arrived in the summer of 2005, Basra locals were so happy that they slaughtered a goat on the tarmac in celebration.
Today, there are functional international airports in Basra, Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah - with more on the way. And while Iraqi Airways, whose Hussein-era planes now litter the country like gigantic matchbox toys, is the only domestic airline with the full support of the Ministry of Transportation in Baghdad, it isn't Iraq's only airline. To the north, the Kurds have launched their own Kurdistan Airlines. Of course, the airline, which flies from European destinations into the tiny, mountain-ringed, single-runway airports at Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, isn't always the most convenient mode of transportation. To discourage terrorist attacks, Kurdish Air flight schedules are deliberately hard to find, and planes depart from unpredictable locations on short notice. The poor service doesn't mean the seats are cheap, either. For a one-way trip lasting only four hours, you'll have to pony up the equivalent of $1,000 U.S. Even so, most flights are packed with Iraqi businessmen and returning expatriates.
10. Iraqi Sheep Ride Shotgun.
With their economy largely in shambles, many Iraqis raise livestock (chiefly sheep and goats) for food and profit. Big-time shepherds and goatherds transport their animals in large open-bed pick-up, but your average Iraqi dabbling in animal husbandry can't afford a truck just to haul two or three sheep to market once a month. So, like all good Iraqis, he makes do. It's not uncommon to see an Iraqi man driving a compact car with his wife and kids in the back seat and, in the passenger's seat, a fat, woolly sheep being chauffeured to the market for slaughter.
Iraqis also routinely transport live animals in the trunks of their cars. In early 2006, at a checkpoint outside the central city of Balad, U.S. and Iraqi troops stopped a nervous Iraqi driver. While U.S. soldiers stood back and supervised, the Iraqi troops searched the man. Expecting to find a bomb or contraband weapons, they popped the trunk and discovered why the driver as so apprehensive. Crammed in the trunk next to the spare tire were a sleepy full-grown goat and a wriggling two-month-old puppy. The Iraqi soldiers rolled their eyes; the Americans doubled over in laughter; the driver, embarrassed, just shrugged.
The article above was written by David Axe for the Sept-Oct 2006 issue of mental_floss magazine (the awesome Annual 10 Issue! Get it today at the bookstore.) - it is featured on Neatorama in partnership with mental_floss.
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