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Major Urban Areas

Within the last 10 years, Iraq's urban and rural society has been expanding and undergoing rapid social change. The growth of the Baghdad and Basra urban centers, for example, has been astounding. The accelerated urbanization process throughout the country has resulted in a dramatic decrease of the population in the rural areas. The growth of the cities reflects the concentration of trade, construction, and real estate business activities fed by oil revenues and agricultural surpluses.

Most rural inhabitants live in villages where houses and buildings are of primitive construction and are similar in size and shape. In the south the majority of the houses are made of mud and reeds, and in the north they are made of stone. The villages are generally located along rivers or canals and dwellings are built in irregularly patterned clusters connected by narrow, winding roads. The larger villages have a central area where the mosque and one or more coffee houses are located. Within these rural areas, state funds are being used to update or introduce electricity, potable water, and health services.

Historically, a wide gap divided Iraqi cities from the tribe-dominated country. The Ottoman Empire championed the towns at the expense of the tribes. The British, in contrast, tried to balance the tribes against the towns. Towards this end, the British excluded the countryside from national law. Until the fall of the monarchy in 1958, Iraq was legally subject to two norms: one for the city and one for the tribal areas.

Until well into the 20th century, many urban residents were of relatively recent tribal origin. These tribal immigrants were therefore a link between the two disparate societies. Those who moved into Baghdad and other urban centers from the same village tended to relocate in clusters to ease the difficulties of transition and maintain traditional patterns of mutual assistance. Neighborhoods formed on the basis of rural or even tribal origin. Over the last 20 years, the sharp cleavage between the rural and urban communities has further broken down. Large areas of the rural south especially have been devastated by continuous fighting, triggering a massive migration to the cities. The general outline and history of Iraqi population dynamics over the last 50 years is characterized chiefly by urbanization, with a steady and growing movement of people from the rural (especially southern) region to the urban (especially central) region.

The Arabic word for city, medina, connotes the center of political or economic power. Iraqi cities and towns are a mosaic of neighborhoods based mainly on religious or ethnic composition. In general, Islamic cities Shia and Sunni alike are marked by a series of specific buildings and institutions such as the Friday mosque and public bath. There is a strict separation between markets and places of production and residential areas.

Rural Iraq retains aspects of the largely traditional mode of social organization, particularly in the more isolated areas, such as the marshes in the south. Each household typically consists of one nuclear family, although some may include an extended family. The division of labor within the house is very clear-cut and follows the traditional rural pattern of men working the fields and women attending to the household chores.

The Kurdish region is characterized by an urban-rural division as well. Once mainly nomadic or semi-nomadic, by the early 19th century, about 20% of Iraqi Kurds lived in historic Kurdish cities such as Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Irbil. The migration to the cities, particularly of the young intelligentsia, helped develop Kurdish nationalism. Since the early 1960s, the urban Kurdish areas have grown rapidly. Kurdish migration-in addition to being part of the general trend of urban migration-was prompted by the escalating armed conflict with Baghdad, and natural disasters such as a severe drought in the late 1950s. Voluntary Kurdish population movements in Iraq, however, are dwarfed by the deportations of Kurds by various Iraqi governments.



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