Iraqi americans

by Paul S. Kobel


Iraq lies the furthest east of all the Arab nations. It has a total area of 167,975 square miles (435,055 square kilometers), which is comparable to the size of California. It is bordered by Iran to the east, Syria and Jordan to the west, Turkey to the north, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south. A small portion of Iraq's coast in the north meets the Persian Gulf. The capital of Iraq is Baghdad. Iraq is a level region in a dry climate fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Rain is sufficient for agriculture only in the northeast.

The population of Iraq is roughly 16,476,000. The Iraqi population is fairly evenly divided between the Shiite and Sunnite Muslim sects (53 percent and 42 percent respectively). The Kurds are the largest minority group in Iraq, making up about 15 percent of the population. Oil production, which began in 1928, is the engine behind Iraq's economy. Less than half of the Iraqi workforce is employed in agriculture. Iraq's national flag has three horizontal stripes colored red, white, and black from top to bottom, with three green stars in the middle of the white stripe.


The word iraq is a geographic term used in early Arabic writings to refer to the southern portion of the contemporary parameters of Iraq. Originally, the area now called Iraq was known as Mesopotamia and was one of the first culturally developed areas of the world. The Semites were the first to inhabit the region in 3500 B.C. The Semites that settled in the north were called Assyrians, and those that settled in the south were called Babylonians. The northern portion of Iraq was originally known as Al-Jazirah, which means "the island," because the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers surrounded it. In 600 A.D. Iraq was ruled by the Persian Sesanian Empire, which employed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for irrigation. Southern Iraq was inhabited by Arabian tribesmen, some of whom recognized the Sesanian monarchy. From early on, Iraq enjoyed a rich cultural diversity. Some of the ethnic minorities that migrated to the region included Persians, Aramaic-speaking peasants, Bedouin tribal groups, Kurds, and Greeks.

In 627 A.D. the Byzantines invaded Iraq, although efforts to seize control of the region failed. A period of civil strife followed, which left the region open to Muslim raiders. Iraq subsequently became a province of the Muslim caliphate (A caliphate is the highest office within the structure of Islamic religion). Early caliphs were the successors of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. In 632 the Muslims of Medina elected Abu Bakr as the first caliph. The Omayyad dynasty of caliphs ruled from Damascus until 750, when Shiite Muslims, who descended from the caliph Ali, massacred the Omayyad family. The Shiite Muslims subsequently established the Abbasid as the caliph. The revolution that brought the Abbasid family to power prompted a period of medieval prosperity for Iraq, whose center was Baghdad (known as the "city of peace"). The peak of prosperity came with the reign of Harum ar-Rashid (786–809), during which time Iraq was the pillar of the Muslim world. Shortly after the ninth century, however, the caliphate began to disintegrate.

Mongols led by Hulegu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, captured Baghdad in 1258. This resulted in a long period of decline. Baghdad was crushed during the invasion, and nearly one million people perished. After a period of internal chaos, Iraq was drawn into the Ottoman Empire. Although rule under the Turks was despotic, Iraq profited from Ottoman rule, as economic conditions as well as overall quality of life improved for most inhabitants. Ottoman rule resulted in Muslim Sunnite dominance in the north, although the Shiites in the south were generally free to practice Islam as they chose. The weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to local control of Iraqi provinces, which was often tyrannical. Centralized control was restored to the region with the rise of the Mamluk regime in the eighteenth century. The Mamluks were Christian slaves who converted to Islam. Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, Iraq was dominated by the Georgian Mamluk regime, which succeeded in restoring political and economic order to the region and included the rule of Suleiman II (1780-1803). In 1831, the reign of Daud, the last Mamluk leader, ended. Iraq once again fell under Ottoman rule, during which time the governorship of Midhat Pasha exerted its modernizing influence. Midhat restructured the city of Baghdad by tearing down a large section of the city. Midhat then established a transportation system, new schools and hospitals, textile mills, banks, and paved streets. Also at this time, the first bridge across the Tigris River was constructed.

After World War I Great Britain occupied Iraq and helped the nation achieve gradual independence through a mandate issued by the League of Nations. However, Great Britain's influence in the region was undermined by a growing sense of nationalism in Iraq. In 1921 a monarchy was established, and shortly thereafter Iraq entered a treaty alliance with Great Britain and drafted a constitution. Complete independence would not be achieved until 1932. The new monarchy under the rule of King Faisal had difficulty controlling minority unrest. Assyrians rebelled in 1933 and were brutally put down. In 1936 another coup toppled the monarchy. Despite the political instability that characterized the new government until World War II, Iraq made significant improvements in its infrastructure.

During World War II economic progress stagnated, and communism was growing in popularity. In 1945 the Kurds, an ethnic minority group, attempted to establish an autonomous republic but failed in 1945. Iraq was occupied by Western forces and used as a conduit for supplying Russia during the war. After the war foreign troops left the region, and Iraq enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity under the monarchy of Nuri al-Said. Iraq helped establish the League of Arab States in 1948. Prosperity continued under King Faisal II, during which time new irrigation, communication, and oil production facilities were put in place.

In large part because the monarchy neglected the masses, a military coup took place in 1958 in which the king and his family were murdered. General Abdul Karim Kassem formed a military dictatorship and abolished the frail democratic institutions that had been in place. Kassem was assassinated in another coup, and a revolution in 1968 brought the Ba'th party to power under General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr.


By 1973 the Iraqi Communist Party had full control of governmental affairs. In 1974 the Ba'th Party placated the Kurds, who made another push for independence, by offering them an autonomous region. Bakr resigned from office in 1979 and was succeeded by Saddam Hussein, who was next in command. One of his first acts as head of state was the invasion of Iran in 1980 when Iran failed to honor a 1975 treaty, according to which land bordering the two countries was to be returned to Iraq. Although the campaign was initially successful, it ultimately plunged the country into an eight-year battle with Iran from which neither side profited in the end. Iraq lost more than one million of its men during the war. Throughout the war Iraq was supported by several Western nations, including the United States, which furnished Iraq with military information about Iran's strategic movements in the Persian Gulf and attacked Iranian ships and oil platforms.

After the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein made efforts to implement democratic reforms, including the drafting of a new constitution that would introduce a multiparty system and provide for freedom of the press. Before the plans could be implemented, however, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. One of the reasons behind the invasion was that Iraq had accumulated more than $80 billion in war debt during the war with Iran, a substantial portion of which was owed to Kuwait. When Hussein's effort to seize control of border territories diplomatically (claiming a historical right to them) failed, he resorted to force. On the same day as the invasion the United Nations passed Resolutions 660 and 661, which ordered Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and imposed economic sanctions, respectively. Hussein ignored the resolutions and declared Kuwait a province of Iraq in late August of 1990. A UN effort that included the support of several Arab nations issued air strikes and sent ground troops into the region in early 1991. The United States participated heavily in the conflict, in large part to protect Saudi Arabia, as well as to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East. By April of 1991 Iraq capitulated and withdrew from Kuwait.

The Persian Gulf War nearly destroyed Iraq's military forces and devastated the infrastructure of its major cities. In addition, damage to oil refineries and economic sanctions left Iraq in economic disarray. Internal political conflict followed the war as Kurds and Shiites rebelled. Hussein crushed the insurrections, however, driving thousands of Kurds to Turkey seeking refuge. Iraq later entered into negotiations with the Kurds in an effort to establish autonomy for the ethnic minority and legalized opposition parties to the central government.


Although there are roughly two million Arabic-speaking immigrants in the United States, a very small portion of that group (approximately 26,000) came from Iraq. There were two general immigration waves that ushered Middle Eastern groups to the United States: the World War II wave, and the post–World War II wave. Immigration to the United States from the Arab community between 1924 and 1965 was extremely limited. During this period a quota of no more than 100 Arabs were admitted, in accordance with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Early immigration reports suggest that immigrants from the Arab community did not come to the United States in response to persecution or political repression. Most Muslims came seeking economic wealth that they ultimately planned to transport back to their native countries.


A large portion of current Iraqi refugees migrated to the United States after the Gulf War. Roughly 10,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the U.S. after the 1991 war. The two main groups admitted were the Kurds, a minority group in Iraq who were the target of Iraqi persecution, and Muslim Shi'a, from southern Iraq, who demonstrated animosity toward Saddam Hussein in 1991 by orchestrating an uprising against the regime.

The Muslim immigrants that came to the United States from Iraq in the 1990s were unlike previous groups from the Middle East. Other Muslim immigrants, such as the well-educated Lebanese and Iranians who came to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, had sufficient exposure to Western culture to adapt easily to American society. The Muslims from Iraq, however, were much more conservative, believing in such traditional customs as arranged marriages and raising children with a firmness that could easily be construed as child abuse in the United States. Belief in traditional Muslim values made for a difficult transition for some Iraqi families. In one instance an Iraqi family that migrated to Lincoln, Nebraska, was the subject of national attention. The father of the household arranged marriages for his 13- and 14-year-old daughters to two Iraqi American men ages 28 and 34, when he suspected they intended to engage in premarital sex. Although the legal marrying age in Iraq is 18, fathers customarily marry their daughters at an earlier age in order to preclude the temptation to have sexual contact before marriage. The incident brought to light the distance between Muslim custom and law and American custom and law.

Some observers believe that not enough is being done to acculturate Middle Eastern refugees. Although Christian organizations such as Catholic Social Services (which contracts with the federal government to assimilate various refugee groups) make a concerted effort to orient Muslims and other incoming refugees to American laws and customs, it sometimes is not enough to bridge the gap between cultures. The arranged marriage in Nebraska to the two minor girls, although clearly a transgression of American law, is somewhat common among Iraqi immigrants in the United States. In fact there are often public advertisements put out by Iraqi fathers seeking single Iraqi men to wed their daughters.

Historically, immigrant groups profit from the experience of their predecessors. In the case of Iraqi immigrants, however, many of who are first-generation refugees, assimilation is something accomplished in large part on their own. Some scholars have noted that in the past, a sort of "assimilation contract" existed, by which immigrants would be able to retain their cultural diversity in the United States in exchange for committing to learning and accepting American law and custom. However, the "contract" is now being undermined by court decisions that have begun to recognize cultural and legal ignorance as a valid defense against violations of American law.

Acculturation and Assimilation

As one might expect, life for Iraqi Americans has not been as harmonious as other immigrant groups, given the history of relations between the United States and Iraq. Many Iraqis living in the United States are torn between their loyalty to their former country and their allegiance to their new home. However, the majority, if not all, of the Iraqi people living in the United States agree that Saddam Hussein is at the root of the domestic unrest in their homeland. Moreover, most believe that Iraq will not reach a point of domestic tranquility and earn the respect of the international community unless and until Saddam Hussein's regime falls. Nonetheless, out of concern for their friends and family at home, Iraqi Americans tend not to endorse trade sanctions and air strikes against Iraq.


One of the main Arab dishes is called hummus, which is ground chickpeas and garlic with spices served with flat pita bread. Some of the staples of the Muslim diet include rice, garlic, lemon, and olive oil. Pork is forbidden for religious reasons. Most dishes are eaten with one's hands. Traditionally, the right hand is used because it is considered the cleaner of the two. A common expression extended to the chef out of appreciation is tislam eedaek, which means "bless your hand."

Other common Arab dishes include shish kebab and falafel, which are deep fried balls of chickpeas served with tahini (sesame sauce). Some of the less common dishes include bistilla, meat and rice served inside a pastry shell, and musakhem, roasted chicken with onions and olive oil. The traditional Arab dessert is baklava, which is an exquisite pastry with layers of phyllo dough covered with nuts and honey.


Health care is free in Iraq, and the vast majority of medical facilities have been nationalized. In rural areas there is a shortage of adequate health care facilities and personnel. Despite the advances Iraq has made in health care since the 1970s, outbreaks of infectious diseases such as malaria and typhoid are somewhat common in Iraq. In recent years, genetic defects and children born with permanent disabilities have been on the rise in Iraq because of the chemicals used during warfare over the past two decades. These problems translate into poor health statistics among Iraqi immigrants in the United States, since many come here seeking the health care that was unavailable or require an extensive waiting period in their native country.


The official language of Iraq is Arabic, though there are many different dialects spoken throughout the nation. The largest minority group is the Kurds, who speak Kurdish. Roughly 80 percent of the population speak some derivation of Arabic.

Although there are nearly as many different Arabic dialects spoken in Iraq as there are towns and villages, the variation between the towns and villages are not as pronounced as they are in other Arabic-speaking nations such as Syria and Lebanon. Arabic derives from the ancient Semitic languages. There are 28 letters in the Arabic language, none of which are vowels, which makes it extraordinarily complex. Vowels are expressed by positioning points or by inserting the consonants alif, waw, or , ya in places where they are not usually used. Arabic is written from right to left. Modern-day Arabic is slightly different from the classical literary Arabic that was used to write the Koran, though it follows the same stylistic format. Devout Muslims see the Koran as God's word in both style and substance and view any colloquial deviation from pure Arabic as an assault on the integrity of the language. However, the majority of Muslims have adapted the language to meet their needs. In Iraq as well as most Arabic-speaking nations, the majority of the educated population are essentially bilingual, having a command of both classical literary Arabic and their local variation. In public forums, schools, media, and in parliament pure classical Arabic is used.

Family and Community Dynamics


Since the revolution of 1958 there has been an increased emphasis on education within the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Iraq. Iraq leads the Arab world in the numbers of qualified scientists, administrators, and technicians it produces. Education is free and is compulsory to the age of 12, and there is easy access to education to the age of 18. The government guarantees jobs to students affiliated with the Ba'th party after they graduate. Many Iraqi students come to the United States for their postgraduate education. Although women have generally suffered limited access to education, their enrollment has been consistently rising. In higher education institutions in Iraq, female enrollment is around 50 percent. The number of Iraqi American women attending institutions of higher learning has increased as well, with some women immigrating to the United States, alone or with their families, solely for this opportunity.


Iraq, like many Arab nations, is a patriarchal society. Women historically have had less access to education beyond primary school and have been discouraged from entering the workforce. This trend, however, has been changing in the 1990s, as more and more women have been attending Iraqi universities and contributing to the workforce, in large part out of economic necessity. In general, female refugees tend to come to the United States with their families, as wives and daughters, which facilitates the transfer of traditional patriarchal values to their host country.

Iraqi women, as well as Iraqi American women, bear the burden of reproducing Muslim values. Unlike other ethnic minorities that migrate to the United States, the Arab female generally benefits less from the liberal environment of American society. Because women are expected to propagate cultural values, their role is often limited to family affairs, which leaves little opportunity to expand their existence beyond child rearing. In addition, there is some pressure among individual Arab immigrant groups to convince other groups to conform to traditional Islamic values, one of which is the belief that women should be submissive and subservient to men. Though this is not the experience of all Arab females that migrate to the United States, it seems to be common for many.


Traditional Iraqi American weddings are elaborate affairs. The bride and groom sit in miniature thrones while guests join hands and dance in a circle before them. For those who can afford it, a ballroom is rented, an orchestra is hired, and elaborate feasts are prepared. It is customary for the groom to demonstrate financial security before he is accepted as an adequate husband by the bride's parents. The divorce rate in Iraq, which has historically been low in Arab nations, has been on the rise because of the hardships brought on by a lack of economic opportunity. This has not been the case with the divorce rate among Iraqi Americans, which remains quite low.


Islam came to Iraq in roughly 632 A.D. and has been the dominant religion ever since. Islam has been divided into two major sects: the Sunni and Shiite. The Sunnite sect is the more prevalent of the two throughout the Arab world, but in Iraq the division is nearly equal. For the most part religious tensions between the two denominations has given way to economic and political tensions. Islam is the state religion of Iraq, though minorities of Christians, Jews, Yezidis, and Mandaens are tolerated.

Islam, which means "submission," dominates cultural and political life in most Arab nations, and Iraq is no exception. Mecca is the holy city of Islam because it is where the prophet Mohammed first preached his teachings from God. The beginning of the Muslim calendar corresponds with Mohammed's pilgrimage. The Kaaba, in Mecca, is the holy shrine of Islam.

The teachings of Mohammed, which are considered by Muslims to be the word of God, were transcribed to the holy book of Islam called the Koran. Mohammed illustrated a code of conduct for life. Islamic tradition holds that religion, law, commerce, and social life are one entity. The central law of Islamic religion is called the shahada, or testimony, which holds that: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet." One need only recite the shahada with unquestioning conviction in order to convert to Islam, and devout Muslims must declare the shahada aloud and with full conviction once in their life. Other tenets of Islam include the belief in resurrection, the final judgment of man, and the predetermination of man's every act. Islam holds that God sends a prophet to earth to lead mankind back to God's path. There have been thousands of prophets sent by God, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed.

There are five central teachings of Islam, which are called the Five Pillars: declare the oneness of God; pray often; fast; give alms; and make a pilgrimage to the holy city. The Five Pillars play a central role in the lives of Muslims, who are required to pray five times each day, first standing and then kneeling. Practitioners of Islam are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. During fasting periods Muslims, with the exception of the sick and wounded, must refrain from food, drink, and all other worldly pleasures. Muslims are instructed by the Koran to give to the poor in money or in kind on a regular basis. Lastly, Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage, called the hajj, is considered the culmination of Islamic practice.

Another component of Islamic teaching is the jihad, which literally means "exertion." Muslims are asked to spread the word of God to all the peoples of the world. Many Westerners mistakenly refer to jihad as "holy war," or an endorsement by the Koran to wage war on those who do not follow the Islamic faith. In fact, the Koran emphasizes that conversions are not to be executed by force. Some Arab nations have employed the term, however, to mobilize and inspire their forces during times of war.

Politics and Government


Many Iraqi Americans have mixed emotions about their former homeland. On the one hand, they love their country and want to see it flourish, but on the other they despise Saddam Hussein and the international disrepute and social and economic devastation he has brought to the country. Some Iraqi Americans have the same ambivalence about UN and U.S. air strikes against Iraq. Although they support deposing the tyrannical Iraqi leader, they fear for the lives of their friends and family back home.

Some Iraqi Americans who participated in an uprising against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after the war are critical of U.S. attacks designed to punish the Iraqi leader for failing to comply with UN resolutions. Although they stand in decisive opposition to Saddam Hussein, they are critical of U.S. attacks (recently carried out in December of 1998) because, they contend, they have not accomplished their stated objective of removing Saddam Hussein from power. For instance, one Iraqi refugee, Muhammad Eshaiker, a California resident, summed up his feelings in a news article by Vik Jolly in the Orange County Register : "I am torn apart between my love for America and my love for Iraq. I reconcile that with the hope that one day Saddam [will be gone] and the relations between the U.S. and Iraq will improve."

Iraq was declared a republic under a provisional constitution adopted in 1970. In theory, an elected body heads the legislative branch, a president and a council of ministers leads the executive branch, and the judiciary is independent. In practice, however, the constitution has little bearing on political affairs. Opposition to the central government has been consistently repressed throughout Iraq's history. All of the influential governing duties are carried out by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a veritable extension of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba'th party, which came to power in 1968 and has remained the ruling party.


The Arab News Network (ANN).

The ANN has a website that provides access to a variety of newspapers published in Arabic.

Contact: Eyhab Al-Masri.


Online: .

Iraq Opposition Daily News.

Affiliated with ABC News; provides up-to-date information on Iraqi-United States political affairs.

Online: .


Free Iraq Service.

Provides weekly broadcasts in Arabic on current political and social developments in Iraq. The Free Iraq Service also publishes a weekly magazine ( Free Iraq ) that updates political events associated with post–Gulf War developments in Iraq.

Online: .

Organizations and Associations

The Iraq Foundation.

The Iraq Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization striving for political democracy in Iraq and the protection of human rights for Iraqi citizens. Their website provides news and updates on political and social events related to Iraq.

Address: The Iraq Foundation, 1919 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Suite 850 Washington, D.C. 20006.

Telephone: (202) 778-2124 or (202) 778-2126.

Fax: (202) 466-2198.


Online: .

Iraqi National Congress (INC).

The INC was founded in Vienna in June of 1992 and has a National Assembly of decision makers consisting of 234 members. The objective of the INC is to establish an operating base in Iraq from which to provide humanitarian relief to victims of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime. The INC is also soliciting the support of the international community to enforce UN Security Council resolutions.

Address: Iraqi National Congress 9 Pall Mall Deposit 124-128 Barlby Road, London W10 6BL.

Telephone: (0181) 964-8993.

Fax: (0181) 960-4001.

Online: .

Sources for Additional Study

Harris, George, et al. Iraq: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press, 1958.

Longrigg, Stephen H. and Frank Stoakes. Iraq. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1958.

McCarus, Ernest, ed. The Development of Arab-American Identity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

al-Rasheed, Madawi. "The Meaning of Marriage and Status in Exile: The Experience of Iraqi Women." The Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 6 no. 2, 1993.

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