The Republic of Iraq dominates the Fertile Crescent region of Southwest Asia. Bounded by Syria and Jordan on its west; Turkey on the north; Iran on the east; and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf on the south, Iraq is strategically located to dominate regional affairs. About the size of California, Iraq stretches along its border with Iran and Turkey to reedy marshes in the Southeast. Iraq is a land of contrast; desert plains occupy most of Iraq with the exception of the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, which are the most fertile in the Southwest Asia. Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf is limited to the Shatt al-Arab region. An area of historical dispute between Iraq and Iran, the Shatt al-Arab waterway provides Iraq with a narrow corridor to the Persian Gulf. Undoubtedly one of Iraq's objectives in its failed attempt to retain Kuwait was to improve its access to the Persian Gulf.
Iraq can be divided into four major geographical zones or regions: the desert in the west and southwest, the rolling upland between the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the mountains in north and northeast region, and the alluvial plan through which the Tigris and Euphrates river flow.
The mountainous and upland regions provide the most natural defense. Avenues of approach are limited in these regions, and the Iraqis should be able to defend this region with a small force. The delta plain and southern marsh lands limit avenues of approach to major road networks. This region is less defensible than the mountainous region and the Iraqis should be able to contain an attack. The Syrian Desert is the least defensible and the Iraqis are vulnerable to mobile operations in this region.
The vast Syrian Desert region is ideal for mobile operations; however, cover and concealment is limited and water is scarce. The upland region limits mobile operations to improved/unimproved roads and dirt tracks. Some cover and concealment is provided by the numerous wadis in the region. Mobile operations are severely restricted in the mountainous region. Vehicles are limited to the few road networks, and during rainy season the area may be impassable. In the delta region vehicle movement is restricted to the present road network. Marsh land in southern Iraq would impede light operations.
The desert region west and southwest of the Euphrates River is part of the Syrian Desert. Covering sections of Syria and Jordan, this desert is sparsely inhibited and consists of vast stony plains intersected with sandy subregions.
The upland region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is part of a larger area that extends westward into Syria and Turkey. Water flows in deeply cut wadis (valleys) hampering irrigation efforts. This region is predominantly desert.
The mountainous region begins southwest of Mosul and Kirkuk, extending to Turkey and Iran. Mountains range from 1,000 to ,000 meters near the Iranian and Turkish borders. With the exception of a few valleys this region is suitable only for grazing. At lower elevations in the steppes and foothills, adequate rainfall make cultivation possible.
The alluvial plain region begins north of Baghdad and extends to the Persian Gulf. Described as a delta plain interlaced with irrigation canals and intermittent lakes, for years this region was subject to flooding by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. From the late 1960s to the mid70s, government efforts were increasingly devoted to flood control. In southern Iraq, an area (15,600 square kilometers) from Al Qurnah and extending east of the Tigris beyond the Iranian border is predominantly marsh land.
Although many bridges were seriously damaged by allied bombing during the Gulf war, the damage causes then has been substantially repaired.
A major road network was constructed to facilitate troop and supply movement during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq has 36,438 kilometers of paved roads. Nearly all of the major cities are linked by paved roads. These paved roads are heavily used and require considerable maintenance. The secondary and feeder roads are primarily unpaved. Driving is affected by summer heat and limited by obstructions and rough surfaces off the main roads. The road from Baghdad to Al Basrah near the Kuwaiti border extends some 560 kilometers. A 1,200 km six-lane expressway was being constructed to link Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria and will pass through Baghdad, Diwaniya, and Basra. A similar expressway was being planned to link Baghdad with the Turkish border via Kirkuk, Irbil, and Mosul.
The railroads in Iraq are state-owned and run by the State Enterprise for Iraqi Railways. Maintenance and development of the railway system was severely disrupted by the 1980-88 and 1990-91 wars. The rail routes originate in Baghdad and link to most main cities, including Mosul, Al Basrah, Irbil, Husaibah, and Akashat. There are also routes that serve major industrial centers.
Because the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates above their confluence are heavily silt laden, irrigation and fairly frequent flooding deposit large quantities of silty loam in much of the delta area. Windborne silt contributes to the total deposit of sediments. It has been estimated that the delta plains are built up at the rate of nearly twenty centimeters in a century. In some areas, major floods lead to the deposit in temporary lakes of as much as thirty centimeters of mud.
The Tigris and Euphrates also carry large quantities of salts. These, too, are spread on the land by sometimes excessive irrigation and flooding. A high water table and poor surface and subsurface drainage tend to concentrate the salts near the surface of the soil. In general, the salinity of the soil increases from Baghdad south to the Persian Gulf and severely limits productivity in the region south of Al Amarah. The salinity is reflected in the large lake in central Iraq, southwest of Baghdad, known as Bahr al Milh (Sea of Salt). There are two other major lakes in the country to the north of Bahr al Milh: Buhayrat ath Tharthar and Buhayrat al Habbaniyah.
Iraq lacks adequate port facilities. Al Basrah and Umm Qasr are the most used commercial ports for Iraq, though a port was opened at Khor az-Zubayr in 1979 (and subsequently closed in 1980 due to the Iran-Iraq War). Khor az-Zubayr and Umm Qasr are operational again, though only to vessels of 10 meters draught. Al Basrah can accommodate 12 vessels at the Maqal wharves and 7 vessels at buoys with a usual water depth of up to 10 meters. The port reportedly has a 40-ton gantry crane, 7 front loaders, and some tractors and trailers, all in a 30-acre area. Umm Qasr has space for eight vessels. Container and roll-on vessels can use three general cargo berths for vessels up to 183 meters-long. Umm Qasr now lies partly in Kuwaiti territory after the border demarcation after the Gulf War. The port is now open only for commercial uses; no military craft operate from there.
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