During the battle of Jenin in 2002, two Israeli infantry battalions
engaged several hundred Palestinian guerrillas. Jenin’s population of
about 26,000 was much smaller than Fallujah’s. According to Randy Gangle,
director of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (a private
concern in partnership with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory),
the Marines would have operated in Jenin with a single battalion, given
its one square mile area. The refugee camp
where the main battle was waged is smaller still and densely populated.
A Marine battalion probably would have done as well as the Israelis
in Jenin. The tasks assigned to 1/5 and 2/1 in Fallujah, however, were
of a different magnitude and beyond their capabilities—at least within
what were deemed to be acceptable limits of friendly and civilian casualties
and property destruction. Superiority does not necessarily entail a
numerical advantage in men. At the same time, urban warfare marginalizes
traditional Marine attributes, such as superior training and discipline.
Depending on the tactical situation, manpower shortages may be compensated
for by increased firepower, which Marine commanders were unwilling—or
unable—to apply in Valiant Resolve. Indeed, it appears that leaders
at the scene quickly came to this conclusion. The operation never progressed
beyond the foothold stage. Marines gained access to the urban area (in
that case, outlying industrial neighborhoods), but did not penetrate
to the heart of the city, much less take it. After a few days of active
combat, Marines cordoned off the area and the matter was “resolved”
politically by establishment of the Fallujah Brigade. The bulk of the
enemy force remained at large in the city and was reinforced. Fallujah
became an insurgent stronghold and base for kidnappings, murders, and
attacks that would cost the coalition dearly in the following months.
Between April and November 2004, both sides busily prepared for a rematch.
Iraqi insurgents and foreign mujahadeen dug tunnels, emplaced mines
and booby-traps, and improved their defenses. Meanwhile, most of Fallujah’s
civilian population fled the city, which greatly reduced the potential
for noncombatant casualties. The emptying city invited greater applications
of air power. U.S. warplanes and artillery launched highly selective
attacks, weakening insurgent defenses, hitting leadership targets, and
laying the groundwork for a renewed assault. Although some estimates
put insurgent strength before al-Fajr as high as 5,000, many of them—including
most of their top leadership—fled before the battle. When U.S. troops
crossed the line of departure, it is estimated that 2,000-3,000 insurgents
remained in the city.
The combined Marine-Army-Iraqi force for Operation al-Fajr was many
times larger than the force employed in April 2004. Numerous press reports
placed the total size of coalition forces at 10,000-15,000. The actual
assault element comprised about 6,000 U.S. troops in four Marine battalions
(3/1, 1/3, 3/5, 1/8) and Army Task Force 2-2 (two mechanized battalions).
About 2,000 Iraqi troops bolstered the assault force, which was supported
by aircraft and several Marine and Army artillery battalions.
With Fallujah cordoned by the remaining troops, the assault force struck
from the north on 8 November 2004, quickly breaching insurgent defenses
and reaching the heart of the city. Although fighting was at times severe,
by 12 November, U.S.-Iraqi forces controlled 80% of the city.
Combatants and observers recognized a heavier and broader application
of firepower. By 10 November, U.S. artillery batteries had fired at
least 800 rounds into the city; a frequently cited report claimed 24
sorties were flown over the city on the first day of combat and a total
of four 500-pound bombs was dropped.
Fallujah is sometimes called “the city of mosques”; and insurgents
made heavy use of them as command posts, arms depots, and defensive
positions. Inside the Saad Abi Bin Waqas Mosque in central Fallujah,
Marines found small arms, artillery shells, and parts of missile systems.
Marines and soldiers engaged insurgents emplaced in mosques, but always
with great caution and often using Iraqi troops to finish off assaults.
It took Company B, 1/8, fighting on foot, 16 hours of house-to-house
combat to capture the Muhammadia Mosque, during which time they were
attacked with everything from rocket-propelled grenades to suicide bombers.
Resistance stiffened in southern Fallujah as the assault force faced
sometimes uniformed opponents who fought with increased professionalism
and discipline. “When we found those boys in that bunker with their
equipment, it became a whole new ballgame” said one soldier. He continued,
“The way these guys fight is different than the insurgents.”
Nonetheless, by 20 November, the attackers had routed the remaining
insurgents and taken the city.
U.S. casualties in Operation al-Fajr were 51 killed and 425 seriously
wounded; Iraqi government troops suffered 8 dead and 43 wounded; and
as many as 1,200 insurgents were reported killed. Some knowledgeable
analysts described these losses as historically light for an urban battle
of Fallujah’s scale—and there is a sound basis for this claim. The U.S.
forces avoided major disasters like the Soviets suffered in Grozny,
and even more limited reversals, such as the IDF suffered in Jenin,
when most of a platoon was destroyed in an ambush.
Yet despite the superb performance of Marines and soldiers in Fallujah,
there is reason for concern. The 476 U.S. casualties represent about
8% of the total assault force, a low but not insignificant loss for
less than two weeks’ combat. Moreover, a surprising
number of U.S. troops are wounded and returned to duty in Iraq—about
45% overall. For example, as of 12 November 2004, I MEF Commander Lieutenant
General John Sattler reported that, while 170 troops had been wounded
seriously, another 490 Marines and soldiers suffered wounds but were
able to return to duty. Extrapolating U.S.
losses based on a 45% rate of wounded returning to duty, actual wounded
in Fallujah might have been 616. Considering General Sattler’s actual
figures, total wounded might have been more than 1,200 men (about 20%
of the assault forces), a casualty rate that is not significantly lower
than historical precedents. It is gratifying that U.S. troops are willing
and able to fight on despite their wounds, but it is cause for concern
when they are expected to take considerable casualties to spare civilians
and infrastructure and appease the U.S. and international media.
In many respects, the U.S.
approach in Fallujah resembled Israeli tactics in the West Bank and
Gaza. This is not surprising because numerous sources indicate that
Marine and Army officers studied Israeli tactics prior to OIF.
Israeli urban warfare tactics are sophisticated, effective, and well
practiced. In many respects, however, the IDF has different operational
and strategic objectives from U.S. forces. In addition, the IDF historically—for
example, in Jerusalem in 1967, Beirut in 1982, and Jenin in 2002—has
proved willing to take high casualties in urban warfare.
Dating from the siege of Beirut in 1982, Israel has practiced a complex
and limited form of urban warfare. In Beirut, this involved a cordon
around the city, accompanied by limited attacks with artillery, ground,
and air forces to put pressure on the Palestinian Liberation Organization
(PLO) and Syrian forces inside. The IDF did not launch a general assault
on the city; it awaited a political solution that resulted in evacuation
of enemy forces under the auspices of outside powers. Despite the IDF’s
restraint, it was depicted as little short of barbaric by much of the
international media. The PLO’s evacuation was treated as a victory parade,
rather than the retreat it was, and the PLO lived to fight another day.
The battle was a tactical victory for Israel, but a strategic defeat.
The Beirut experience and ongoing domestic and international pressures
color Israeli doctrine. Throughout the current struggle, the IDF generally
has not occupied Palestinian cities, a notable exception being seizure
of the Jenin refugee camp. (The Jenin operation is the exception that
proves the rule: the IDF was castigated for its assault on Jenin and
falsely accused of perpetrating a massacre.) IDF urban warfare doctrine
effectively bans the use of fixed-wing aircraft and artillery in support
of ground operations. Troops rely on attack helicopters and direct fire
weapons—usually only small arms and machine guns. Israeli units cordon
Palestinian cities and towns, seize a few key buildings or areas, and
launch raids against suspected terrorists. Although these operations
tend to be quite effective tactically, they result in strategic stalemate
because Palestinian forces are left in place after the IDF withdraws.
Tactically and operationally, fighting Israeli-style in an urban setting
requires a heavy commitment of ground troops to make up for reduced
fire support, and to intimidate rather than confront enemy forces. This
allows Israeli units to achieve limited objectives. In June 2004, the
IDF’s tunnel raids in Rafah, a small city in Gaza, required deployment
of almost a division of Israel troops. (Israeli divisions are somewhat
smaller than their U.S. counterparts, and the force in Rafah would have
operated without artillery and other supporting elements.) Rafah has
about half the population of Fallujah (167,000) and it is tiny in comparison:
5-6 square kilometers.
|U.S. MARINE CORPS (SAMANTHA L. JONES)
Fire support provided to Marine, Army, and Iraqi assault troops
during Operation al-Fajr was far more substantial than that employed
in Valiant Resolve. The 4th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, was
one of several Marine and Army artillery battalions to take part
in the second attack on Fallujah.
In Valiant Resolve, U.S. tactics and highly restrictive rules of engagement
closely mirrored Israeli techniques. Owing to these restrictions and
too small a force, the operation was aborted, with arguably disastrous
results for U.S. policy in Iraq. Many mistakes were corrected during
al-Fajr. Heavy armor was employed, and air and artillery strikes were
more liberally authorized. Even so, dropping four 500-pound bombs on
the first day of a major assault remains an extremely selective application
of firepower. Despite predictable claims that Fallujah was devastated,
photos reveal superficial damage to most buildings and an occasional
structure demolished. Television coverage of Marines engaged in harrowing
room-to-room combat belie hysterical stories that entire city blocks
What would have happened had we met a tougher, more professional opponent
in Fallujah? The insurgents were formidable because many were willing
to fight to the death—but in the main, they were an indifferently armed
rabble who could inflict casualties because of the nature of urban warfare
and U.S. sensibilities. What if U.S. forces find themselves facing Syrian
commandos or well-trained Hezbollah guerrillas?
Large ground forces are necessary when U.S. units adopt Israeli-style
urban warfare tactics—which, to a large extent, the Marines appear to
have done in Fallujah. To accomplish their mission in Valiant Resolve,
they needed a considerably larger force to operate in the absence of
heavy air and artillery support. Further, Israeli urban tactics are
designed primarily for isolating selected areas, not seizing and holding
terrain and buildings. If U.S. forces intend to take and clear an urban
area block by block, as they did during al-Fajr, they are going to pay
a heavier price. The result in Valiant Resolve was similar to what Israeli
forces have achieved against the Palestinians: indecisive outcomes that
keep the enemy in business. Operation al-Fajr weakened the Iraqi insurgency,
but it came too late and too temperately to have broken the insurgency’s
back, despite the claims of some U.S. officers. The men who killed the
U.S. contractors—the act that precipitated the battle—have not been
found, much less prosecuted. Many insurgents escaped Fallujah during
the buildup after Valiant Resolve, and al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al
Zarqawi remains at large.
Was the battle of Fallujah a victory or a defeat? The Marine Corps’
military operations in urban terrain doctrine recognizes that tactical
success does not necessarily translate to strategic victory. It notes
the Israeli’s tactical victory in Beirut was a strategic defeat—and
observes the same about the Battle of Hue in the Vietnam
War, when Marines defeated an enemy that sought to put up a good
fight but never expected to win. Much the same can be said of Fallujah’s
defenders. In spite of the beating they took in November, they will
continue to assert they repelled the initial attack and fought well
The potential problem for the Marine Corps and U.S. deterrence in general
is more than just local. During a visit to Israel in the early 1980s,
an Israeli acquaintance described his military service to me as “an
Israeli Marine.” Israel does not have Marines; he meant he had been
in the paratroops, which were the best and toughest soldiers in the
IDF. He assumed that an American would understand a comparison with
U.S. Marines—and I did.
At that time, the IDF could deploy paratroops to disturbances in the
West Bank or Gaza who, by simply showing up in their red berets, could
settle things down. Much has changed in 20 years. Today, no Israeli
paratrooper would be so foolish as to wear his beret in Nablus or Ramallah.
Israeli paratroopers continue to fight well. Nonetheless, a couple of
decades of persistent and inconclusive combat in Lebanon and urban combat
in the territories have done much to erode their regional, if not international,
The handwriting is on the wall. The Battle of Fallujah was not a defeat—but
we cannot afford many more victories like it.