Although a census occurred in late 1987, only overall population totals and some estimates were available in early 1988. The latest detailed census information was that from the 1977 census. The total population increased from 12,029,000 in 1977 to 16,278,000 in 1987, an increase of 35.3 pecent.
The population has fluctuated considerably over the region's long history. Between the eighth and the twelfth centuries A.D., Iraq--particularly Baghdad--was the flourishing center of a burgeoning Arab civilization, and at the height of the region's prosperity it may have supported a population much larger than the present society. Some estimates range as high as 15 to 29 million. Decline came swiftly in the late thirteenth century, however, when Mongol conquerors massacred the populace, destroyed the cities, and ravaged the countryside. The elaborate irrigation system that had made possible agricultural production capable of supporting a large population was left in ruins.
A pattern of alternating neglect and oppression characterized the Ottoman rule that began in the sixteenth century, and for hundreds of years the three vilayets of Baghdad, Al Basrah, and Mosul--which the British joined to form Iraq in the aftermath of World War I--remained underpopulated backward outposts of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-1800s, the area had fewer than 1.3 million inhabitants.
Upon independence in 1932, the departing British officials estimated the population at about 3.5 million. The first census was carried out in 1947, showing a population of about 4.8 million. The 1957 census gave a population of about 6.3 million, and the 1965 census returned a count of slightly above 8 million.
The October 1977 census gave the annual rate of population growth as 3.2 percent. According to the October 1987 census, the annual population growth rate was 3.1 percent placing Iraq among the world's high population growth rate countries (2.8 to 3.5 per year). In common with many developing countries, Iraq's population was young: approximately 57 percent of the population in 1987 was under the age of twenty. The government has never sought to implement a birth control program, a policy reinforced by the war to offset losses in the fighting and mitigate the threat from Iran, whose population is roughly three times that of Iraq.
In 1977 about 64 percent of the population was listed as living in urban areas; this was a marked change from 1965, when only 44 percent resided in urban centers. In the 1987 government estimates, the urban population was given as 68 percent, resulting in large measure from the migrations to the cities since the start of the war. The partial destruction of Basra by Iranian artillery barrages has had a particularly devastating effect; by 1988, according to some well informed accounts, almost half the residents of the city--its population formerly estimated at 800,000--had fled. At the same time, approximately 95,000 persons were identified in the 1977 census as nomadic or seminomadic beduins. This figure is a 1986 estimate by nongovernmental sources and is higher than the 57,000 listed in the 1957 census; the increase probably reflects either an improved counting procedure or a change in definition or classification. Overall, the nomads and seminomads constituted less than 1 percent of the population, whereas in 1867 they had been estimated at about 500,000 or 35 percent of the population.
The population remains unevenly distributed. In 1987 Baghdad Governorate had a population density of about 950 persons per square kilometer and the Babylon Governorate 202 persons per square kilometer, whereas Al Muthanna Governorate possessed only 5.5 persons per square kilometer. In general the major cities are located on the nation's rivers, and the bulk of the rural population lives in the areas that are cultivated with water taken from the rivers.
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