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Why Iran and Iraq are at war

Two countries in the Middle East with very similar names are fighting a bitter war in one of the hottest places on earth.

That place is the Persian Gulf, although the Arabs have chosen to call it the Arabian Gulf. To put the argument to rest, some people just call it the Gulf.

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The two countries at war with such similar names are Iran and Iraq. It was a lot less confusing when Iran was known as Persia and the region of present-day Iraq was called Mesopotamia.

These names Mesopotamia (for today's Iraq) and Persia (for today's Iran) will perhaps be more familiar to you, because Mesopotamia and Persia were great civilizations of the past.

They were also tremendously powerful. And it is because they were rivals for so long in the past - they are next-door neighbors - that they are enemies today.

Both of them would like to be leaders, not only in the Gulf, but in the Middle East as a whole. History keeps reminding them of these ambitions.

Iran, for instance, or Persia as it was then, grew very powerful under such well-known kings as Darius, who lived from 548 to 486 BC, and Cyrus, who lived from 559 to 529 BC. By conquering Lydia and Babylonia (part of what is now Iraq) , Darius controlled Asia Minor.

The history of the people of Mesopotamia is also very impressive.

As in Mesopotamia then, so in Iraq today, the two great rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates. Where they meet is known as the cradle of civilization. The ancient civilization of Babylonia was also sited in this region.

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Of the official Seven Wonders of the World (all of them in the ancient world) , one was situated where Iraq is today. It was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

They were built by King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BC. At that time Babylon, about 60 miles south from the present Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, was the most dazzling city in the world. These hanging gardens consisted of several tiers of platform terraces, built upon arches with colorful plants and flowers watered by fountains. Neither Babylon nor the gardens exist today.

The important thing to remember about Iran and Iraq today is that Iran as a Persian country is not Arab. Iraq is an Arab country.

Way back in 637 AD -- or more than 1,300 years ago -- the Arabs defeated the Persians at the Battle of Qadisiyah. The Arabs of today, and that includes the Iraqis, believe the victory there settled the Arab-Persian conflict in their favor for all time.

That is why Iraq's President today, Saddam Hussein, is accusing the current leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, of seeking revenge for Qadisiyah by attacking Iraq. Back in September 1980, Iraq had attacked Iran across the Shatt al Arab estuary, which separated the two countries. Both would like to control the estuary, although the dividing or boundary line is supposed to be down the middle of that waterway.

Another important fact to remember in understanding Iran and Iraq is that those two leaders, President Hussein (not to be confused with King Hussein of Jordan) and Ayatollah Khomeini have a personal feud going on between them.

Not only do these two men represent different kinds of the Muslim religion, but the Ayatollah does not believe that President Hussein is a very good follower of his own religion. The Ayatollah calls him corrupt. The bitterness between the two dates back to when President Hussein forced the Ayatollah out of his country in 1978. The Ayatollah, whose arch enemy then had been the Shah of Iran, had taken refuge in neighboring Iraq for many years. From Iraq Ayatollah Khomeini went to France, where he became better known to the outside world. It was when he was in France that he was able to come back to Iran and topple the Shah.

It was not long after that that Iran and Iraq went to war.

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