Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq

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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

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