Dedicated individuals with advanced equipment are forging ahead to give Iraq a new geospatial reference system.

Wisam Al Hassani, a survey engineer with the Precise Survey Division of the Ministry of Water Resources, trained himself on GPS surveying systems and became the resident survey expert in Iraq.

Survey Engineer Najam Abadi Ashure (left), along with a field assistant, runs digital double leveling to the newly installed HARN points.

At least one commodity in Iraq is more important than oil: water. In the arid region of Western Asia, water is always a concern. Getting any available water to where it is needed--for agriculture, industry and consumer consumption--is a primary goal of Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources. The role of this critical agency is even more important now that the infrastructure assets need to be maintained and rebuilt−while a war still rages on.

Following the 2003 Iraqi ground mission, coalition forces quickly set out to survey damage to the water supply system and to ready the military and civilian teams to begin the important work of keeping the water flowing. But besides the constant fighting that makes any job in Iraq difficult, there was another problem: Iraq’s survey infrastructure was a hodgepodge of data based on a woefully out-of-date, inaccurate British system and a Polish-designed system that had little existing documentation.

In addition, all four of the Iraqi total stations had been destroyed in the fighting, and the remaining equipment was all but unserviceable. How had this happened, and how could these challenges be overcome by the surveying teams of the Ministry of Water Resources?

Problems from the Past

The British established the Surveying and Mapping Directorate in Iraq after the 1921 occupation. They built first-order horizontal and vertical networks and produced the first national map of Iraq, which is still used to determine property ownership. The British Vertical System, which was developed using conventional leveling, is based on the mean sea level of the Persian Gulf. Some older irrigation projects are still based on that system.

In 1974, a Polish company contracted to establish new horizontal and vertical networks and redraw the national map using aerial photogrammetry. What is known about the Polish-designed system, which was completed in 1979, is that it used astronomic observation, triangulation, trilateration and least squares adjustment. Once one of the best networks in the region, the system was based on a modified version of the Clarke 1880 ellipsoid with 2,600 horizontal points. The national elevation network comprised 1,600 first-order vertical bench marks measured from mean sea level in Fao City (now known as al-Faw) near the Persian Gulf and distributed along the main roads every 5 kilometers (3 miles).

Unfortunately, most of the literature on the extensive Polish system was lost in the military machinations and paranoia of the Sadam Hussein regime. Like almost every piece of information about the geography of Iraq, including virtually all maps, the survey system was declared secret and all the documentation kept under wraps.

“The old regime restricted anything dealing with maps and coordinates as they were afraid of enemies using the information against them,” says Wisam Al Hassani of the Ministry of Water Military. “Officers were subject to very harsh punishments for sharing any information about maps. When I needed to use a navigational GPS unit, which was only to be found in the defense ministry, two officers would go with me.”

In fact, much technology was labeled as a military concern, including cell phones and all two-way radio devices. Even worse, from 1980-2003, the government made virtually no improvements in the system and neglected to maintain it, which caused it to fall slowly into disrepair. These policies resulted in the loss of approximately 60 percent of the horizontal and vertical control.

The lack of documentation for the Polish-designed system means that while the existing reference points are still workable, no one knows why. The rationale for the system--such as the modifications to the Clarke 1880 ellipsoid--is lost, which is rather like having a car that runs some of the time but with little to no knowledge of how it works and no mechanic in sight. Surveyors know from textbooks, for example, that the Polish team used astronomical data as part of the survey but not how they derived the data. Like the British survey, the points still work for some projects but are effectively “dead” for future applications and upgrades.

The surveying infrastructure was breaking down in other ways, as well. After 10 years of U.S. sanctions and the regime’s tight control of information regarding anything more than the very basic surveying of property lines, many scholars in the field left Iraq for work in other countries. Iraq offered no advanced degree in surveying. The equipment the certificate students used for training was old, and many pieces were not even functional. By default, most of the training was an inefficient combination of “dated” material of a “theoretical nature,” in the sense that if they had the newer equipment and if the government would let them use it and if they had trained professionals to teach students how to use it, “this is how it might work.” The overall situation was abysmal.

A Self-Taught GPS Expert

Al Hassani took it upon himself to learn as much as possible about the new technologies in the unlikely event that they might become available in the future. At some risk, he trained himself on whatever computer software was available and read voraciously about GPS surveying systems.

Then, in 2001, Al Hassani got his chance. The U.N. gifted the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources with four Topcon total stations (two GTS-225s and two GTS-710s). However, no one knew what to do with them. Lacking training and fearing that the military might react poorly to unauthorized experimentation with the systems, the total stations sat at the ministry in their unopened Topcon boxes. At the time, Al Hassani, the one man who had some idea of what to do with the new equipment, was working on a dam project in northern Iraq. The equipment he was using on the site was old and barely serviceable. The job was not going well. When the minister of water visited the dam and saw the problems, he asked Al Hassani what he needed to get the job done. Al Hassani did not hesitate: “I need one of the Topcon total stations,” he said, and he got it, becoming the first Iraqi to use a total station.

Of course, it was not quite that simple. Al Hassani had only seen pictures of the total station and read articles and Web sites about how it worked. The minister wanted proof that he could use the system, so Al Hassani took the manuals home and began to read. Though he could read English, understanding the material was still difficult. Just a day before, he had been using an old optical theodolite, an old distomat and mathematical formulas written out by hand with pencil and paper. Now he had a modern Topcon total station system that would do everything for him.

With no one in the entire country who could train him and direct contact with Topcon representatives simply out of the question due to the military restrictions, Al Hassani taught himself. In just a few days he had the brand new GTS-225 working.

The original Iraqi Geospatial Reference System established in 2005 comprised six CORS and 64 HARN points leveled in six southern provinces.

“I became the most important man on the project,” he says. “After that, all the companies in the project asked me to help them learn how to use the equipment, so I held a workshop in the ministry.” The directorate then put Al Hassani to work on the Mousal Dam with the GTS-710. It worked like a charm, and Al Hassani was set as the resident survey expert in Iraq.

And then, in 2003, the war began and everything changed. All four of the total stations were destroyed in the fighting, and Al Hassani feared that the small but important progress toward a modernized survey program in Iraq had all been for nothing. Regardless of the setbacks, Al Hassani was determined to continue with what he had started.

Iraq’s New Geospatial Reference System

Following the initial invasion, the U.S. and British military initiated the Iraqi Geospatial Reference System (IGRS), which would eventually include the U.S. National Geodetic Survey (NGS), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and Al Hassani’s team in Iraq. They initially installed six continuously operating reference stations (CORS) with 64 high-accuracy reference network (HARN) points leveled in six southern provinces in Iraq. Iraqi surveyors then gathered and processed data using the online positioning user service (OPUS) tool on NGS’s Web site.

In 2006, as part of the new effort, a team of Iraqi surveyors attended a 20-day training workshop in Washington, D.C., organized by the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.1 And in June 2008, Al Hassani’s team attended the FIG (Fédération Internationale des Géomètres, or International Federation of Surveyors) Working Week 2008--Integrating Generations conference in Stockholm, the first time the Iraqis joined an international survey conference. There is still much to learn to make up for years of little to no progress in the field, but the team is eager for the chance.

Al Hassani and his team are installing new HARN points throughout Iraq to build a modern geospatial reference system.

Thankfully, the IGRS project received funding for new equipment. Al Hassani’s team purchased two Topcon GR-3 GPS systems, six Topcon GPT-7500 total stations, four Topcon GPT-9000A total stations, 10 Topcon GMS-2 GPS systems for GIS application, 12 Topcon DL-101C digital levels, Topcon TopSURV field controller software for FC-100 and FC-2000 data collection, Topcon Tools post-processing and adjustment software, ESRI ArcGIS 9 for database construction, and four laptop computers.

With the new equipment, the team is now installing a new CORS network with HARN points no more than 15 kilometers (9 miles) apart in other provinces. The Polish system bench marks, which the Iraqi survey team uses as the basis for the new data, might not be accurate. (While the original Polish contracted bench mark system still exists, the actual system information does not.) However, the ultimate goal is to cover Iraq with HARN points and to “build a digital database that will include digitized versions of the old horizontal and vertical data, as well as the new data from the IGRS,” says Al Hassani.

A bird's-eye view of Baghdad.

When completed, he adds, the Iraqi Geospatial Reference System “will be the new official reference system in Iraq, providing surveying companies with an accurate horizontal datum transformation program to enhance their work.”

The work is not easy, even with the new equipment. The teams must travel both on major thoroughfares where checkpoints and roadside bombs present a constant danger, and on back roads where there is little to no police or military protection for their efforts. As representatives of the new Iraqi government, Al Hassani and his team members could easily become targets. And yet, “Iraq urgently needs a high-resolution geoid,” he says.

The work goes on.


Al Hassani, Wisam, “Iraqi Geospatial Reference System,” ACSM Bulletin 230, December 2007,

The IGRS team extends its appreciation to the Ministry of Water Resources for its invaluable assistance in completing the project; to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, especially Dr. Linda Aleen and Dr. Maged Hussein, who supported the team from the beginning, provided the Topcon instruments and software, and organized the initial training; and to the MNC-I C7 Geospatial NCO U.S. Army survey team, especially MSG Paul Long, MSG Anas Malkawi and MSG Paul Mackenzie.

Sidebar: Equipment on the Ground

  • Two Topcon GR-3 GPS systems
  • Six Topcon GPT-7500 total stations
  • Four Topcon GPT-9000A total stations
  • 10 Topcon GMS-2 GPS units for GIS applications
  • 12 Topcon DL-101C digital levels
  • Topcon TopSURV for FC-100 and FC-2000 data collection
  • Topcon Tools software
  • ESRI ArcGIS 9 for database construction
  • Four laptop computers

Sidebar: The Iraqi Teams

Team 1:Installs and observes new HARN points with Topcon’s GR-3 GPS
  • Wisam (Abdulkadhum Hussein) Al Hassani, survey engineer, Precise Survey Division of the Ministry of Water Resources; and Kasim Homadi Abid, survey engineer, Precise Survey Division

Team 2: Collects GPS data on old horizontal, first-order Polish points with Topcon’s GR-3 GPS
  • Abas Alawi Mutlak, survey engineer, Precise Survey Division; and Ahmed Mahdai Karim, surveyor, Field Survey Division

Team 3:Uses digital double-run precise leveling to obtain orthometric heights from the HARN points installed by Team 1
  • Najam Abadi Ashure, survey engineer, Precise Survey Division; and Fawzi Mohamed Madlool, survey engineer, Field Survey Division

Sidebar 3: A Day in Karbala Province

8 p.m. (The Night Before) – The teams meet and agree that the precise-leveling team will run double leveling to point KA03, which was installed and measured previously by the HARN team. Team members locate the nearest first-order vertical Polish point and find that it is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) long. They agree that the HARN team will install a new HARN point in a small city (name omitted for security reasons) about 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside Karbala province and measure the point that was installed the day before (KA07).

6 a.m. – Breakfast

6:30 a.m. – The HARN and precise-leveling teams inspect all instruments for theft or damage and check the cars for fuel level, damage and potential explosive hazards. They then pick up local hired workers to hold the Invar staff and move equipment as needed.

7 a.m. – The precise-leveling team checks the accuracy of the instruments (Topcon DL-101C) using the built-in adjustment program. After achieving a good result (0.0002 meter), the team begins running double leveling from a Polish point.

7:45 a.m. – The HARN team members request permission to enter the garden of a municipality boundary building where they had installed point KA07 the previous day.

8 a.m. – The HARN team members start collecting data using a GPS receiver (Topcon GR-3). According to NGS specification, they will need two 5.5-hour sessions (a total of 11 hours in two sessions) to observe the point. They start the data collection and head to the site of the new point (KA08).

8:15 a.m. – The HARN team heads toward the small city outside Karbala province to choose a location for installing point KA08.

9:15 a.m. – The HARN team arrives at the site for KA08 and makes arrangements with local military and police units to work freely inside the city.

10 a.m. – The HARN team tours the city to choose the location for point KA08. They choose a local government boundary building to install the point, near the park area.

10:15 a.m. – The HARN team meets with the local governor and describes the project, emphasizing the importance of installing the points to establish an accurate spatial reference system that can be used for all the projects in the city. The governor agrees.

10:30 a.m. – The HARN team installs the new point, KA08.

12:30 p.m. – The precise-leveling team finishes about 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) of leveling and returns to the hotel.

1:30 p.m. – The HARN team finishes installing point KA08 and heads toward point KA07, where the receiver is still collecting data.

2:45 p.m. – The HARN team turns the instrument off and returns to the hotel.

7:30 p.m. – The HARN and precise-leveling teams meet to discuss any existing problems and to plan for the next day.