Iraq: 4,000 Years Of Strife

Sunday Morning, People walk in the streets of Iraq
CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews has been exploring the long, storied history of the land now called Iraq.

The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, a word meaning 'the land between the rivers' - the muddy Tigris and the meandering Euphrates. Here is the cradle of civilization.

It gave rise to great thinkers, like the Sumerians who created one of the first written languages, and the Babylonians, who built the Hanging Gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

It's been the home of great conquerors, like Hammurabi whose code of justice demanded an eye for an eye; Nebuchadnezzar who vanquished Jerusalem, around 600 B.C.; and, centuries later, Saladin, the Muslim warrior who repelled the Christian crusaders of medieval Europe.

But into this land's history, and seeking this land's wealth, has also come a parade of invading armies, some of whom stayed: the Assyrians, the Persians, the Arabs and the Turks.

The Turks, and their Ottoman Empire, dominated Mesopotamia for some 400 years, yielding only at the start of the 20th century, when still another invading army arrived on the scene.

It was the British, flush with victory in the First World War, who took over the region, hoping to claim its oil. It was the British - pencils in hand - who re-invented Mesopotamia.

What they did was take out a map, hand draw some boundaries and then pick an ancient name, Iraq, meaning 'land of the sun.' But within the lines of the boundaries they drew - and quite in line with history - what they invented wasn't so much a country as a random collection of tribes.

"They just simply patched groups of people together who really had no particular common interest," says Sandra Mackey, the author of "The Reckoning," a history of Iraq. "They didn't create a nation. They created a state of divergent groups."

Make that wildly divergent. In the south were Arabs who followed the Shi'a sect of Islam; in the center, around Baghdad, were rival Arabs, who practiced Sunni Islam. In the north, lived another ethnic group altogether: the Kurds. Iraq became one giant melting pot, kind of like America minus the unifying ideals.

From the time the country was put together by the British in 1921, it has really been a collection of groups competing for the right to define the state, explains Mackey. "The Iraqis have never found this common identity that really holds them together," she says.

The British thought that kind of job was fit for a king. So they installed one: Faisal the First. Faisal was a hero - he had fought against the Turks with the legendary T.E. Lawrence, a man better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

But Faisal also knew what the British expected: he granted Iraq's oil concession to Westerners, and cut a deal to split the money.

By the late '50s, Iraq's generals had had it with kings keeping the money.

In 1958, Gen. Ab-dal Karim came to power, declaring Iraq a republic.

"Our revolution is a reaction to the tyranny and corruption," he said.

But he still had to rule the melting pot, and that was done by force.

Hundreds of nationalist figures have been driven by others into hiding; then, almost a decade later, Iraqi forces were among those humiliated by Israel in the 1967 war. In response, the Baath political party in Iraq promised a new era of greatness.

The new president was Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. But the star within the party, its chief of internal security, was Bakr's 31-year-old cousin: Saddam Hussein.

"He realized that the best place to accumulate power, to horde, so to say, power, was to be the Czar of Internal Security," says Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East History at Israel's Haifa University.

"By 1971, he's already the real power behind the throne. President Bakr, said to people around him, 'You know, we are doomed. Saddam is in charge of everything,'" Baram says.

Broadcast journalist Roger Mudd reported, "The president of Iraq, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, said he was resigning today because of poor health. He handed over power to the military strongman, Gen. Saddam Hussein, who for some time has been regarded as Iraq's real head of government."

And that's where history stood on a day in July of 1979, when Saddam Hussein, enjoying a cigar, took over.

Saddam assembled the leadership of the Baath Party, read aloud a bogus list of traitors - and then killed his way to power. Those he named went outside to die; everyone else stayed inside to sweat. It had been done like this before in Iraq, but only Saddam would make the video. He was proud of this. He hoped he would be clearly understood: you would fear Saddam or be killed by him, there was no in-between.

"Now he is the most powerful man - not just the most - the only powerful man in Iraq," Baram says.

Saddam, now free to pursue his sense of greatness, moved to grab power beyond Iraq. And he did it with a wink from the US. In 1980, he invaded Iran, the Iran of the Ayatollah Khoumeni, an enemy he shared with the U.S.

Not much later, after Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against Iranian soldiers, the Reagan administration's response wasn't sanctions; it was an offer of diplomatic relations, delivered by Secretary of State George Shultz.

"We proceed on the basis of equality and mutual respect," said Schultz in 1984 in a talk with Tariq Aziz.

So Saddam felt no outside constraint when he decided to terrorize his own people. In 1988, suspecting the Kurds of disloyalty, Saddam ordered them gassed, too.

"He doesn't care about people when his vision is at stake," notes Baram.

In fact, Saddam sacrificed more of his people at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. He took bloody revenge against the Shiites and Kurds who had attempted a revolution.

"If he needs to sacrifice half the Iraqi people, he does it without hesitation. No problem at all," Baram continues.

Now comes the latest invading Army, preparing the last days, the last hours of Saddam Hussein. Soon the new invaders will have to unify what has never been unified, build what has never been built, here in the cradle of civilization.

"There are two distinct problems. And each has enormous risk for the United States," says author Sandra Mackey. "One is Saddam Hussein. The second problem is Iraq itself. They are a traumatized people. They are a fractured people. And they are in a geographic position, and have resources that make it imperative that the Iraqi state be held together."