Satellite images cast doubt on success of Iraq surge

2019-03-02 03:16:01

By Jessica Griggs (Image: John Agnew/Environment and Planning) US military officials may have taken credit where none is due for decreasing violence in Baghdad with their troop surge of February 2007, data from satellite imaging suggests. By comparing the amount of light produced at night in different areas of the capital before, during and after the 30,000 extra troops had been deployed, researchers from UCLA were able to track the movements of the warring Sunni and Shiite factions. The amount of light was assumed to reflect the number of lights switched on in an area. Combining that with a map of neighbourhood boundaries showed that the lights had dimmed much more in the Sunni dominated west and south-western regions of Baghdad. But this change began before the influx of extra troops. The light levels in four other major cities untouched by the surge remained constant or increased during the period. “It seems that it was sectarian cleansing that has led to the decrease in violence as the Sunnis were ‘cleared out’,” study leader John Agnew, who researches ethnic conflict at the University of California, Los Angeles, told New Scientist. “Unsurprisingly, many of the Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan are Sunnis from these neighbourhoods and when they left they turned off the lights.” Perhaps ironically, the satellite images used came from a US Department of Defence weather satellite. Infrared sensors were used to measure the amount of light given off over areas on the ground measuring 3 square miles (7.84 square kilometers). Agnew and his colleagues used four images taken on clear nights between 16 November 2003, well before the surge began, and 16 Dec 2007, after it had started, to draw their conclusions. Ziad Obermeyer at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington, says using satellite images is a “creative and exciting approach.” As well as removing the time and effort needed to gather population data from census information, data can be gathered instantaneously, he says. But the new technique needs to be validated, says Obermeyer. “It will be important to investigate the other drivers of light levels, for example electricity supply, and atmospheric conditions.” Comparisons with satellite photos from other countries with well known population changes would strengthen the UCLA group’s claims, he says. Journal reference: Environment and Planning A (DOI: