Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 27, 2003
The geographic considerations of warfare were once as simple as the nearly instinctive imperative to occupy the "high ground." Through the centuries, however, geography has played a critical role in military epics such as Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and the American Revolution.

Today, from physical features like deserts and mountains, to the vagaries of weather like sand storms and heat waves, to the culture of people, religion, and tradition, the geography of a place helps to define the nature of any war fought on its soil.

Desert: Obstacle and Opportunity

Mention Iraq, and one dominant geographic feature likely comes to mind—the desert.

Although the country encompasses more diverse terrain than generally realized, the southern and western desert has been front and center to this point in the military campaign launched last week by the U.S.-led coalition. In an age of technological battlefield advancements, this ancient hazard continues to pose challenges—but also offers opportunities.

"It's still very difficult to travel in that desert," said David Miller, senior editor for National Geographic Maps. "It's remote, cars overheat, and the daytime temperatures can get very high—especially as you're approaching summer. Starting in April, and certainly by May, it can be very, very hot there."

Thus far, the season is early enough that heat has not hampered the progress of coalition forces.

Other traditional problems, such as navigation in featureless desert terrain or targeting in a flat landscape, are now aided by GPS systems and laser range-finders. In fact, the unique conditions of the desert afford several advantages for advancing armor. The flat, even terrain facilitates a rapid pace of advance, while the lack of cover favors coalition forces because their equipment boasts greater ranges. But one timeless desert hazard has already become manifest in the current conflict. Desert weather is variable and can be troublesome for all concerned, as evidenced by recent sand storms that blotted out sunlight and made afternoons feel like the dead of night.

"Sand storms make it uncomfortable and can cause mechanical problems," explained James P. Reams, retired Army Artillery Field officer and former West Point geography instructor. "With GPS they should be more of an irritant than a showstopper in terms of advancing. However, really severe [sand storms] will stop or greatly slow the advance. Ground target acquisition is more difficult [in situations of tactically poor visibility], but it is more difficult for both the Iraqis and us—and we have better technology."

Target visibility is not a problem for GPS-guided weapons, but high winds and low visibility have already hampered operations and grounded aircraft. Friendly fire incidents can become a problem in conditions of limited visibility. Predicting the weather remains an inexact science, but expert personnel maintain constant vigilance to provide the most accurate forecasts possible. "I am confident the weather data for the region available to the commanders is superb," said Reams.

Geography of Flight: Iraqi Refugees

Geographic concerns are also paramount for the refugees who may attempt to flee from danger. Iraq's physical and cultural geography may shape the war's refugee problems into more localized events rather than mass migrations. "I do not expect to see lines of refuges streaming to the borders," said Reams. "The main exit points are into Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. The Jordan option is a very long trek over the desert. It was not and is not a real option for mass refugee movements. The same goes for the deserted Saudi Arabia option."

Other potential escape routes pose similarly daunting obstacles for those tempted to flee. A continuous mountain system, known as the Zagros, stretches in an arc from Turkey eastward through northern Iraq and into Iran. Much of the mountainous area is home to the traditionally pastoral Kurds.

"Any mass movement to the north out of Baghdad will run into the Kurds, so that is not a good option," Reams explained. "Mass movement of the Kurds into Turkey is likely only if the Iraqi army retaliates against them, which is unlikely. While you will see refugee flows, they will likely be localized and relatively small—folks getting a short distance out of 'Dodge' as we encircle Baghdad. There could be localized movement across the border into Iran. Frankly, between the physical geography of the deserts to the south and west of Baghdad and the mountains to the north (full of Kurds) there is no logical or safe place for any mass refugee flows to go."

Population Centers Key to War's Outcome

It's often noted that Iraq is roughly the size of California. Unlike the Golden State, however, Iraq's population is very unevenly dispersed. These population patterns are of the utmost importance to a military campaign that is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

"Inhabited Iraq is basically defined by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers," Miller said, "and Baghdad is basically at the center of that. Lots of western and southern Iraq is virtually uninhabited—the settled part is actually just a small subset within the political boundaries." Nearly 70 percent of Iraqis live in urban areas, and over one out of every five Iraqis lives in the capital itself.

Some unoccupied areas, such as Iraq's western deserts, are bereft of people but do have some areas of interest to coalition forces. "There are a lot of airbases and missile launchers in western Iraq," Miller explained. "It was from western Iraq that many of the missiles were fired at Israel during the Gulf War."

While these desert outposts will be the focus of some action, however, it's the large population centers, between the Tigris and Euphrates that will likely become the central geographic feature of the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

More than any mountain range or desert, population centers such as Baghdad may prove tough obstacles for coalition forces to overcome. Simple human density makes avoiding civilian casualties difficult, and affords cover, security, and perhaps even anonymity for those who would take advantage of urban geography.

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.