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Iraq: Social Systems
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Systems


The impact of Western penetration on the indigenous social and demographic structure in the nineteenth century was profound. Western influence took the initial form of transportation and trading links and the switch from tribal-based subsistence agriculture to cash crop production -- mostly dates -- for exportresulted in expanded cultivation, which brought more and more land under cultivation and simultaneously absorbed the "surplus" labor represented by the tribal, pastoral, and nomadic character of much of Iraqi society. This prolonged process of sedentarization was disrupted by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I, but it resumed with renewed intensity in the British Mandate period, when the political structure of independent Iraq was formed.

This threefold transformation of rural society -- pastoral to agricultural, subsistence to commercial, tribal-communal to landlord-peasant -- was accompanied by important shifts in urban society as well. There was a general increase in the number and size of marketing towns and their populations; but the destruction of handicraft industries, especially in Baghdad, by the import of cheap manufactured goods from the West, led to an absolute decline in the population of urban centers. It also indelibly stamped the subsequent urban growth with a mercantile and bureaucratic-administrative character that is still a strong feature of Iraqi society.

Thus, the general outline and history of Iraqi population dynamics in the modern era can be divided into a period extending from the middle of the nineteenth century to World War II, characterized chiefly by urbanization, with a steady and growing movement of people from the rural (especially southern) region to the urban (especially central) region. Furthermore, the basic trends of the 1980s are rooted in the particularly exploitive character of agricultural practices regarding both the land itself and the people who work it. Declining productivity of the land, stemming from the failure to develop drainage along the irrigation facilities and the wretched condition of the producers, has resulted in a potentially harmful demographic trajectory -- the depopulation of the countryside -- that in the late 1980s continued to bedevil government efforts to reverse the decades-long pattern of declining productivity in the agricultural sector.

The accelerated urbanization process since World War II is starkly illustrated in the shrinking proportion of the population living in rural areas: 61 percent in 1947, fillowed by 56 percent in 1965, then 36 percent in 1977, and an estimated 32 percent in 1987; concurrently between 1977 and 1987 the urban population rose from 7,646,054 to an estimated 11,078,000. It was highest in Dhi Qar Governorate where it averaged 50 percent in 1987, followed closely by Al Muthanna and Diyala governorates with rural populations of 48 percent. Between 1957 and 1967, the population of Baghdad and Al Basrah governorates grew by 73 percent and 41 percent respectively. During the same years the city of Baghdad grew by 87 percent and the city of Basra by 64 percent.

Because of the war, the growth of Al Basrah Governorate has been reversed while that of Baghdad Governorate has accelerated alarmingly, with the 1987 census figure for urban Baghdad being 3,845,000. Iranian forces have mounted an offensive each year of the war since 1980, except for early 1988, seeking to capture Basra and the adjoining area and subjecting the city to regular bombardment. As a result, large numbers of the population fled northward from Basra and other southern areas, with many entering Baghdad, which was already experiencing overcrowding. The government has attempted to deal with this situation by moving war refugees out of the capital and resettling them in other smaller cities in the south, out of the range of the fighting.

Data as of May 1988

Last Updated: May 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iraq was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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