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    Who Won the Battle of Fallujah?

    Jonathan F. Keiler
    Proceedings, January 2005

    Enemy insurgents defending Fallujah were formidable because many of them were willing to fight to the death. In general, however, they were an indifferently armed rabble who could inflict casualties because of the nature of urban warfare and U.S. sensibilities. What if our forces find themselves facing well-trained Syrian commandos or Hezbollah guerrillas?

    Was Fallujah a battle we lost in April 2004, with ruinous results? Or was it a battle we won in November? The answer is yes. If that sounds awkward, it is because Fallujah was an awkward battle without an easy parallel in U.S. military history. It is hard to say whether the drawn-out process of securing that medium-sized Iraqi city was a one-time event or the beginning of a trend. I hope it is the former. And to make that outcome probable, I will objectively evaluate the battle here and offer comparisons of Marine Corps and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) doctrine and operations.

    The United States is likely to face more Fallujahs in the near future. The Marine Corps’ reputation as an elite and feared combat force will ride in part on how Fallujah and similar battles are perceived at home and abroad. In evaluating the battle, I considered the differing objectives of the two opposing forces and how close each came to achieving those objectives. One side’s objectives were more limited than the other’s. Third parties, such as Syria and Iran, may perceive the battle differently. Reaching honest answers to these questions requires looking beyond convenient bromides that recount U.S. heroics or anticipate favorable outcomes that remain largely unpredictable.


    In Operation Valiant Resolve, the Marines—here, an infantryman takes aim from a rooftop—fought impressively and with exceptional regard for civilian lives and property. But concern for minimizing casualties and damage quickly limited the scope of their advance.

    Operation Valiant Resolve

    After its impressive initial victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) returned to Iraq in 2004 to replace Army forces in parts of central and western Iraq. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (1/5), was sent to Fallujah to relieve troops of the 82d Airborne Division. On 31 March 2004, four U.S. contractors driving through that city were ambushed and killed by Iraqi insurgents; their bodies were mutilated and displayed publicly before frenzied crowds in a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Mogadishu. A forceful response was vital and anticipated widely. Accordingly, 1/5, along with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (2/1), and supporting Army and Air Force special operations units were ordered to enter Fallujah for an operation dubbed Valiant Resolve. Their mission was to find and eliminate—or apprehend—the mujahadeen and any accomplices who had perpetrated the ambush. Resistance was expected. Rather than a stability and security operation, Valiant Resolve was to consist of deliberate assaults on prepared defenses.[1]

    When the attack commenced 5 April 2004, lead Marine elements were engaged quickly by well-armed and organized enemy units effectively using hit-and-run urban warfare. Despite heavy resistance, the Marines limited their firepower, relying mostly on rifles, machine guns, and snipers. They restricted air support to Cobra attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships.[2] On a few occasions—only after considerable deliberation—fixed-wing aircraft dropped guided bombs on insurgent targets, including a mosque used as a center of resistance.[3] In general, Marine units fought with impressive skill and with exceptional care for civilian lives and property. This solicitude, however, quickly limited the scope of the advance to outlying areas of the city. They did not attempt to penetrate the heart of the city, apparently because U.S. casualties would have been excessive, as would casualties among the inhabitants. The Marines did not want to “rubble the city.”[4]

    On 1 May 2004, Iraqi insurgents took to the streets of Fallujah to declare victory over the Marines. “We won,” an Iraqi insurgent told a reporter, explaining they had succeeded by keeping U.S. forces from taking the city.[5] Newspaper and televised reports showed Muslim gunmen celebrating their “triumph” with weapons, flags, and victory signs. U.S. authorities explained that a new Iraqi Fallujah Brigade would assume security duties in the city and ultimately accomplish the mission.


    © 2004 The Naval Institute. All rights reserved.

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