Iraq's long history stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia, which is often called the cradle of human civilization. Rich in art and artifacts, the Sumerian culture flourished around 4000 BC. Since ancient times, Iraq has been home to great cities, including Baghdad, Ur and Nineveh.

After the Sumerians, Mesopotamia was home to many invaders who shaped the region's culture. Notable ancient rulers include Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. Beginning in the 7th century AD, Baghdad flourished under a series of Caliphs (dynastic rulers) as a centre for Islam, scientific learning, scholarship, arts and medicine. Mongols sacked the city in the 13th century. In 1534, the Turkish Ottoman Empire gained control of Mesopotamia and ruled until the early 20th century.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British forces captured Iraq during World War I, eventually controlling the country as a protectorate. A nationalist uprising in 1920 led to Iraq's becoming a kingdom under the rule of King Faisal (cousin to King Hussein of Jordan). The country gained its full independence as a sovereign state when the British Mandate ended in 1932. However, a treaty of preferential alliance allowed the British presence to continue in Iraq for another 25 years.

Iraqi nationalism strengthened during the next three decades. A military coup in 1958 toppled the monarchy and Iraq was declared a republic. The legislature and constitution were dissolved, and for the next decade, a series of coups put various leaders in power. In 1968, however, the government was permanently ousted by the Ba'ath (Revival or Renaissance) Party, who reintroduced a constitution. The party has continued to rule Iraq ever since.

Relations between the predominately Sunni Ba'athist government and the Iraqi people, particularly the Kurds, Turkomans and Shi'ite majority, have been strained since the Ba'ath Party came to power. Up until the present day, the government has repeatedly crushed rebellions-particularly those by Kurds demanding an autonomous Kurdish state, but also by Shi'ites in the south. Many people have fled to the northern Iraqi border or further to escape repression.

Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency in 1979, and a year later Iraq invaded Iran. The war lasted until 1988. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. An alliance of some Middle Eastern countries and NATO launched a retaliation known as the Persian Gulf War, which led to Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait in 1991. New rebellions by Kurds and Shi'ites were met with brutal repression and led to intervention by the United Nations. Since then, Iraq has been under great pressure from international economic sanctions and a United Nations agreement to allow for the monitoring of its weapons arsenal. Relations between Iraq and the United Nations, as well as Iran, continue to be tense.

  Did you know?
The Ba'ath Party began as a group of young activists in the government who supported Arab nationalism and socialism.