Iraq Urban Society

Iraq Country Studies index

Iraq - Urban Society

Urban society

Iraq's society just before the outbreak of the war was undergoing profound and rapid social change that had a definite urban focus. The city has historically played an important economic and political role in the life of Middle Eastern societies, and this was certainly true in the territory that is present-day Iraq. Trade and commerce, handicrafts and small manufactures, and administrative and cultural activities have traditionally been central to the economy and the society, notwithstanding the overwhelming rural character of most of the population. In the modern era, as the country witnessed a growing involvement with the world market and particularly the commercial and administrative sectors, the growth of a few urban centers, notably Baghdad and Basra, has been astounding. The war, however, has altered this pattern of growth remarkably--in the case of Baghdad accelerating it; in the case of Basra shrinking it considerably.

Demographic estimates based on the 1987 census reflected an increase in the urban population from 5,452,000 in 1970 to 7,646,054 in 1977, and to 11,078,000 in 1987 or 68 percent of the population. Census data show the remarkable growth of Baghdad in particular, from just over 500,000 in 1947 to 1,745,000 in 1965; and from 3,226,000 in 1977 to 3,845,000 in 1987.

The population of other major cities according to the 1977 census was 1,540,000 for Basra, 1,220,000 for Mosul, and 535,000 for Kirkuk (detailed information from the October 1987 census was lacking in early 1988). The port of Basra presents a more complex picture: accelerated growth up to the time the war erupted, then a sharp deceleration once the war started when the effects of the fighting around the city began to be felt. Between 1957 and 1965, Basra actually had a higher growth rate than Baghdad--90 percent in Basra as compared with Baghdad's 65 percent. But once the Iranians managed to sink several tankers in the Shatt al Arab, this effectively blocked the waterway and the economy of the port city began to deteriorate. By 1988 repeated attempts by Iran to capture Basra had further eroded the strength of the city's commercial sector, and the heavy bombardment had rendered some quarters of Basra virtually uninhabitable. Because of the war reliable statistics were unavailable, but the city's population in early 1988 was probably less than half that in 1977.

In the extreme north, the picture was somewhat different. There, a number of middle-sized towns have experienced very rapid growth--triggered by the unsettled conditions in the region. Early in the war the government determined to fight Kurdish- guerrilla activity by targeting the communities that allegedly sustained the rebels. It therefore cleared whole tracts of the mountainous region of local inhabitants. The residents of the cleared areas fled to regional urban centers like Irbil, As Sulaymaniyah, and Dahuk; by and large they did not transfer to the major urban centers such as Mosul and Kirkuk.

Statistical details of the impact of these population shifts on the physical and spatial character of the cities were generally lacking in the 1980s. According to accounts by on-the- spot observers, in Baghdad--and presumably in the other cities as well--there appeared to have been no systematic planning to cope with the growth of slum areas. Expansion in the capital until the mid-1970s had been quite haphazard. As a result, there were many open spaces between buildings and quarters. Thus, the squatter settlements that mushroomed in those years were not confined to the city's fringes. By the late 1950s, the sarifahs (reed and mud huts) in Baghdad were estimated to number 44,000, or almost 45 percent of the total number of houses in the capital.

These slums became a special target of Qasim's government. Efforts were directed at improving the housing and living conditions of the sarifah dwellers. Between 1961 and 1963, many of these settlements were eliminated and their inhabitants moved to two large housing projects on the edge of the city-- Madinat ath Thawra and An Nur. Schools and markets were also built, and sanitary services were provided. In time, however, Ath Thawra and An Nur, too, became dilapidated, and just before the war Saddam Husayn ordered Ath Thawra rebuilt as Saddam City. This new area of low houses and wide streets has radically improved the lifestyles of the residents, the overwhelming majority of whom were Shias who had migrated from the south.

Another striking feature of the initial waves of migration to Baghdad and other urban centers is that the migrants have tended to stay, bringing with them whole families. The majority of migrants were peasant cultivators, but shopkeepers, petty traders, and small craftsmen came as well. Contact with the point of rural origin was not totally severed, and return visits were fairly common, but reverse migration was extremely rare. At least initially, there was a pronounced tendency for migrants from the same village to relocate in clusters to ease the difficulties of transition and maintain traditional patterns of mutual assistance. Whether this pattern has continued into the war years was not known, but it seems likely. A number of observers have reported neighborhoods in the capital formed on the basis of rural or even tribal origin.

The urban social structure has evolved gradually over the years. In pre-revolutionary Iraq it was dominated by a well- defined ruling class, concentrated in Baghdad. This was an internally cohesive group, distinguished from the rest of the population by its considerable wealth and political power. The economic base of this class was landed wealth, but during the decades of the British Mandate and the monarchy, as landlords acquired commercial interests and merchants and government officials acquired real estate, a considerable intertwining of families and interests occurred. The result was that the Iraqi ruling class could not be easily separated into constituent parts: the largest commercial trading houses were controlled by families owning vast estates; the landowners were mostly tribal shaykhs but included many urban notables, government ministers, and civil servants. Moreover, the landowning class controlled the parliament, which tended to function in the most narrowly conceived interest of these landlords.

There was a small but growing middle class in the 1950s and 1960s that included a traditional core of merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, professionals, and government officials, their numbers augmented increasingly by graduates from the school system. The Ministry of Education had been the one area during the monarchy that was relatively independent of British advisers, and thus it was expanded as a conspicuous manifestation of government response to popular demand. It was completely oriented toward white-collar, middle-class occupations. Within this middle class, and closely connected to the commercial sector, was a small industrial bourgeoisie whose interests were not completely identical with those of the more traditional sector.

Iraq's class structure at mid-century was characterized by great instability. In addition to the profound changes occurring in the countryside, there was the economic and social disruption of shortages and spiraling inflation brought on by World War II. Fortunes were made by a few, but for most there was deprivation and, as a consequence, great social unrest. Longtime Western observers compared the situation of the urban masses unfavorably with conditions in the last years of Ottoman rule. An instance of the abrupt population shifts was the Iraqi Jews. The establishment of the state of Israel led to the mass exodus of this community in 1950, to be replaced by Shia merchants and traders, many of whom were descendants of Iranian immigrants from the heavily Shia populated areas of the south.

The trend of urban growth, which had commenced in the days immediately preceding the revolution, took off in the mid-1970s, when the effects of the sharp increases in the world price of oil began to be felt. Oil revenues poured into the cities where they were invested in construction and real estate speculation. The dissatisfied peasantry then found even more cause to move to the cities because jobs--mainly in construction--were available, and even part-time, unskilled labor was an improvement over conditions in the countryside.

As for the elite, the oil boom of the 1970s brought greater diversification of wealth, with some going to those attached to the land, and some to those involved in the regime, commerce, and, increasingly, manufacturing. The working class grew but was largely fragmented. A relatively small number were employed in businesses of ten or more workers, whereas a much larger number were classified as wage workers, including those in the services sector. Between the elite and the working masses was the lower middle class of petty bourgeoisie. This traditional component consisted of the thousands of small handicraft shops, which made up a huge part of the so-called manufacturing sector, and the even more numerous one-man stores. The newer and more rapidly expanding part of this class consisted of professionals and semiprofessionals employed in services and the public sector, including the officer corps, and the thousands of students looking for jobs. This class became particularly significant in the 1980s because former members of it have become the nation's elite. Perhaps the most important aspect of the growth of the public sector was the expansion of educational facilities, with consequent pressures to find white-collar jobs for graduates in the noncommodity sectors.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites: - Iraq - Urban Society in Iraq | Iraqi
Iraq | History, Map, Population, & Facts |
Iraq - Orchid Project
Iraq's Civil Society in Perspective -
Urban and Rural: Worlds Apart - Chronicle

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