Satellite Photos Show Sectarian Cleansing, Not Surge, Led to Drop in Iraq Violence

While the fighting in Iraq continues to kill scores of civilians every week, the relative decline in violence over last year’s levels has been the cause of much optimism among war weary Americans and touted by President Bush as a vindication of his “surge” strategy.

But though both major Presidential candidates having declared the surge a great success and polls show an ever increasing number of Americans believing the same, many have continued to insist that the surge has little if anything to do with the decline in violence. A new report released today has strengthened that position.

The report, published in the Environment and Planning A journal, uses satellite data to show the enormous number of minority Sunnis cleansed from neighborhoods by Shi’ite militias. By the time the surge began, according to study leader Dr. John Agnew of UCLA, “many of the targets of the conflict had either been killed or fled the country”.

In fact, humanitarian groups were reporting a year ago that the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes actually soared after the surge began. The displacement of millions of Iraqi both internally and as refugees into neighboring countries, then, was the primary cause of the decline in violence. The surge, according to the report, “had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved”.

The study’s conclusion, though novel considering the present narrative, is hardly without precedent. In fact, the administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate in August of 2007 had concluded that conflict levels in some neighborhoods were diminishing because of sectarian displacements.

It also sheds additional light on the administration’s persistent warnings that the gains are “fragile and reversible“. With handfuls of the millions of refugees just now beginning to trickle back home, they may find their “cleansed” neighborhoods no more friendly an environment than when they left.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.