Water and oil: two valuable natural resources in Iraq. They are elements that have led to civil war and foreign invasion over the centuries, defining the fractious history of that country. William R. Polk makes this point in convincing fashion in Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Monguls to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation, a detailed examination of the country from its tranquil origins to its tumultuous present-day situation.

In ancient times, when Iraq was known as Mesopotamia, its greatest resource was water, as supplied by the intersecting Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Nomadic tribes migrated to this area, known as the Fertile Crescent, establishing roots and hastening the development of civilization. But eventually the tribes fought over property and power, setting a theme of upheaval that would continue throughout Iraq's history. When the tribes weren't warring amongst themselves, they were fighting invaders the likes of Genghis Khan's Mongols and the Ottoman Turks, each seeking to extract the natural treasures of the land.

In the early 20th century, British imperialists, needing oil to fuel the Industrial Revolution, discovered Iraq was situated above the largest oil reservoir in the world. Even when Iraqis took back their country through revolution in 1958, factions continued to fight. And when they were later united by a heavy-handed dictator named Saddam Hussein, he used the oil to amass great wealth and power and to fund wars with neighboring nations.

Today, Iraq is occupied by the U.S. in what President Bush calls an effort to replace dictatorship with democracy. Polk thinks the occupation still has a lot to do with oil, and his analysis is written with authority, given that he has been studying Iraq for 50 years and has visited the country dozens of times. For anyone seeking an intelligent perspective on the current state of affairs in Iraq, his book is required reading. John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

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