Iraq, situated in what was ancient Mesopotamia, occupies the eastern wing of the Fertile Crescent, the relatively fertile area of land in the otherwise arid region of the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iran, to the west by Syria and Jordan, and to the south by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It is one of the easternmost countries in the Arab world. The country sits at the same latitude as the southern United States. Iraq can be divided into four geographical regions: the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial plains in central and southeastern Iraq; Al-Jazeerah, an upland region in the north between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; deserts in the west and south, covering about two-fifths of the country; and highlands in the north and northeast. The Tigris-Euphrates river system drains into Iraq, fed by melting winter snow in Turkey that gives Iraq viable soil to support agriculture, a major component of the economy.
Urban and Rural Settlement
Over three quarters of the Iraqi population lives in urban environments, mostly in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and Erbil. Baghdad, a major metropolis, and the capital, is the political, economic, and communications hub of Iraq. Close to one third of the total population of Iraq lives in Baghdad. Historically, Baghdad sits in the same area as Babylon. The city of Mosul, second only to Baghdad in its size, sits on the Tigris near the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh and has recently experienced rapid growth.
Towns, hamlets and villages comprise the remainder of the population. These are situated throughout Iraq, but mostly in the lowlands and valleys around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Most of these populations depend on agriculture for their survival.
Facts about Iraq’s Geography
- Fifth largest proven reserves of petroleum in the world.
- Substantial reserves of natural gas.
- The mountains, hills and plains of north and northeastern Iraq occupy about 35,500 square miles (92,000 square kilometers), about one-fifth of the country.
- Dams form an important role in controlling flooding and permitting irrigation, and Iraq has many giant irrigation projects.
- Area: 437,072 square kilometers; about the size of California.
- Cities: Capital–Baghdad (7.2 million, 2006 estimate). Other cities–Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Karbala, Erbil, and Kirkuk.
- Terrain: Alluvial plains, mountains and desert.
- Climate: Mostly hot and dry.
Climate and Soil
Iraq’s average temperature is 70 °F (21°C), and the average monthly rainfall is less than an inch (16 mm), depending on the season. There are two seasons, summer and winter, with only short transitional periods between the two. Summer lasts from May to October and is characterized by cloudless skies, hot temperatures, low humidity and no precipitation from June through September. Temperatures in Baghdad average 95 °F (35 °C), but have been recorded up to 123 °F (51 °C) during summers. During the winter, which lasts from December to February, temperatures are mild with bouts of hot and cold ranging between 35 and 60 °F (2 to 15 °C). Rainfall averages just over an inch per month (29 mm) between November and April.
Iraq has two climatic provinces: the hot, arid lowlands, including the alluvial plains and the deserts, and the damper northeast, where the higher elevation produces cooler temperatures. The lowlands are covered by heavy alluvial soils with a high proportion of clay that is suitable for cultivation and building materials. In the northeast, summer is shorter while the winter lasts longer. The greater winter rainfall sustains good seasonal pastures.
Common to all of Iraq is the steady northerly and northwesterly wind, which brings extremely dry air and a cloudless sky. Additionally, a southern and southeast wind brings dust storms throughout the year, but most frequently in the summer.
Plant and Animal Life
Vegetation in Iraq is characterized by drought. Iraq’s arid climate and harsh terrain are not conducive to wildlife. The most common animals are birds, such as ducks, partridges, snipes and herons, and small mammals like badgers, otters, and muskrats. Gazelle also exist in the country’s remote deserts. Other wild animals include camels, pigs, jackals, foxes and rabbits. Various species of water buffalo are bred in the marshlands. Desert locusts, which are common across the Middle East, also live in Iraq. Few forests exist, with the exception of small oak forests in the north and northeast. Alpine plants grow in the cool, dry climate of the mountains. Shrubs and herbs grow in the more arid regions, and grasses and lush plants thrive along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Two of the most common lush plants are licorice and the date palm. By some estimates, Iraq has more than 22 million date trees. Other major crops include barley, wheat, watermelons, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers, and oranges.