Iraq

Population: 17.2 million. Arabic is the official language and spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population. There is a 15.5 percent Kurdish minority in the northeast.

Area: 167,925 square miles, larger than California.

Religion: Predominantly Islam with Shiite Moslems forming a slight majority over the Sunnis who have traditionally ruled the country.

Economy: Iraq's oil reserves of 112 billion barrels are second only to those of Saudi Arabia. The country is dependent on oil exports for almost all its hard currency needs. GDP in 1985 was $46.8 billion, having declined at about two percent a year over the previous five years. Its total external debt in mid-1989 was estimated at around $65 billion.

History: Known to the ancient world as Mesopotamia, it later formed part of Turkey's Ottoman Empire until it came under British rule during World War I. Iraq regained full independence from Britain in 1932. A military coup toppled the monarchy in 1958, and set off a period of political instability.

The Sunni-dominated Baath party's coup in 1968 brought Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr to the presidency at the head of the newly formed Revolutionary Command Council. Persecution of political opponents became widespread. Saddam Hussein served as Bakr's vice-president for 10 years before taking over as president in 1979.

The following year, determined to fight off the threat of Islamic fundamentalism from Tehran, Iraq invaded Iran and started the Middle East's longest and bloodiest modern conflict. The war cost an estimated one million lives before a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire took effect in August 1988.

Relations with the West have suffered because of Baghdad's poor human rights record and efforts to boost its military power this year. The discovery of shipments bound for Iraq of what were thought to be parts of an enormous gun led to a further worsening of relations with the West.

KUWAIT

Population: 1.9 million of which 40 percent are Kuwaiti. The balance is mainly Arab, but also includes a big community of Iranian descent and a large Asian work force.

Area: 7,000 square miles, about the size of New Jersey.

Religion: Moslems form about 95 percent of the population. Most Arabs in Kuwait are Sunni Moslems and many of the Iranians are Shiite.

Economy: Despite a slump in oil revenue since 1980, Kuwait still enjoys one of the world's highest incomes per capita estimated by diplomats at $13,100 in 1985 in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Proven crude reserves total 65 billion barrels, with 30 billion barrels more considered recoverable, giving a lifespan' of well over 175 years at current rates of output.

History: The Emir, Sheikh Jaber Ahmed Sabah, is the 13th ruler of a 240-year-old dynasty which has ruled Kuwait since severe drought forced the Anaiza tribe, to which the Sabahs belonged, to leave the Arabian hinterland.

A friendship started around 1775 with Britain which led to a treaty in 1899 under which London agreed to protect Kuwait and run its foreign affairs.

Kuwait became independent in 1961 and set up the only elected National Assembly in the Gulf Arab states. But it came under an immediate threat of invasion by Iraq, which has never formally dropped claims to Kuwait on the grounds it was once part of Iraq under the Ottoman Empire. The crisis lifted when Britain, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states signaled their readiness to defend Kuwait. But the two sides have never reached formal agreement on a common border.

Conscious of its size and limited population, Kuwait steers a non-aligned course in its foreign policy. Until 1985, it was the only Gulf Arab state to have diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc as well as the Western powers.

Kuwait has weathered several domestic upheavals since independence, notably a car-bomb assassination attempt on the life of Sheikh Jaber in May 1985.

SOURCE: Reuter