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    Who Won the Battle of Fallujah?

    Page 2 of 2

    According to the 1st Marine Division, by 13 April 2004, 39 U.S. Marines and soldiers had died in the battle, along with approximately 600 enemy fighters.[6] In much of the Arab and Muslim world, the Marines’ withdrawal was viewed as a U.S. defeat, an outlook encouraged by Al Jazerra television and other Islamic media.

    In some important respects, the initial push into Fallujah violated guidelines in the Corps’ urban warfare manual, MCWP 3-35.3. Often cautionary, the manual discusses 22 examples of modern urban warfare in detail and warns, “regardless of the size or quality of defensive forces, the defender usually extracts large costs from the attacker in time, resources, and casualties.”[7] Located 40 miles west of Baghdad, Fallujah is a city of about 300,000 people and 30 square kilometers of area. Its western edge lies along the Euphrates River. The Marines faced a mixed bag of urban guerrillas with few heavy weapons, but nonetheless they were armed for close-quarter combat. Before the battle, the enemy force was estimated to be 2,000.

    Marine Corps doctrine calls for isolating cities before the assault. “No single factor is more important to success than isolation of the urban area.” In all the examples provided in MCWP 3-35.3, “the attacker won all battles where the defender was isolated.”[8] The two battalions assigned the mission also were to cordon off the city: 2/1 from the north and 1/5 to the south and east. Although both cordoning and attacking a city of this size was a demanding task for two battalions, it appears the Marines effectively isolated the city early in the operation.[9]


    Marines of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, continue pressing into the city’s center after gathering intelligence and weapons from a house in Fallujah.

    In addition to isolation, “overwhelming superiority is needed if all costs are to be minimized.” Here it may be that the objectives and means of Valiant Resolve became incompatible. Two reinforced battalions were tasked with isolating and attacking a medium-sized city. MCWP 3-35-3 notes, “in an attack on a built-up area (population of 100,000+), the GCE [ground combat element] of a MEF would be a Marine division.”[10] Fallujah’s population exceeds 100,000, but it is not Shanghai. Thus, while a division (normally composed of three infantry regiments and supporting units) was not needed to cope with the insurgent force in April, the Marines were at less than regimental strength.

    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.[11] 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.

    Operation al-Fajr

    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).[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

    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.[15]

    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.”[16] 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.[17]

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    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.[18] 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.[19] 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.


    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 were leveled.

    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 thereafter.

    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, reputation.

    The handwriting is on the wall. The Battle of Fallujah was not a defeat—but we cannot afford many more victories like it.

    1. Robert D. Kaplan, “Five Days in Fallujah,” The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2004, p. 118. back to article
    2. Pamela Constable, “Troops Gaining Grip on Sections of Fallujah” The Washington Post, 7 April 2004. back to article
    3. GySgt. Mark Oliva, “Marines Suspend Fallujah Offensive, Push Humanitarian Aid,” Marine Corps News at www.usmc.mil, 13 April 2004. back to article
    4. Brendan Miniter, “The Fallujah Brigade,” The Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2004. back to article
    5. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “We Won: Fallujah Rejoices in Withdrawal,” The Washington Post, 2 May 2004. back to article
    6. ”Marines Suspend Fallujah Offensive,” Marine Corps News, 13 April 2004. back to article
    7. Military Operations On Urban Terrain, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-35.3 (Quantico, VA: April 1998), pp. 1-16. back to article
    8. MCWP 3-35.3, pp. 1-16, 1-17. back to article
    9. Kaplan, “Five Days in Fallujah,” p. 126. back to article
    10. MCWP 3-35.3, pp. 1-17 and 2-7.back to article
    11. Christian Lowe, “U.S. Israeli Armed Forces Trade Urban-Warfare Tips,” Marine Corps Times, 31 May 2002. It should be noted that Israeli battalions tend to be smaller than comparable Marine units, and most of the Israeli troops involved in the Jenin battle were reservists. back to article
    12. See www.globalsecurity.org. back to article
    13. Jackie Spinner and Karl Vick, “U.S. Forces Meet Fierce Resistance in Fallujah,” The Washington Post, 13 November 2004. back to article
    14. Jackie Spinner, “Artillerymen Clear Path for the Infantry,” The Washington Post, 11 November 2004; Associated Press, 8 November 2004.back to article
    15. Sameer N. Yacoub, “Foreign Fighters Arrested in Southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 25 November 2004; Dexter Filkins, “In Taking Falluja Mosque, Victory by the Inch,” The New York Times, 10 November 2004. back to article
    16. Jackie Spinner and Karl Vick, “Troops Battle for Last Parts of Fallujah,” The Washington Post, 14 November 2004. back to article
    17. E.g., Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Two, Three, Many Fallujahs,” The Weekly Standard, 6 December 2004; Jack Kelly, “U.S. Tactic, Training Kept Casualties Down in Fallujah” (citing author and retired Army LCol Ralph Peters), The Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 21 November 2004. back to article
    18. It is also nearly 50% of total U.S. casualties suffered in the initial campaign (OIF) between 19 March and 30 April 2003: according to DoD, 109 killed and 426 wounded and not returned to duty. back to article
    19. About 45% of U.S. forces wounded in Iraq are returned to duty and not evacuated. Karl Vick, “August: 1,100 Troops Wounded,” The Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2004; Spinner and Vick, “U.S. Forces Meet Fierce Resistance in Fallujah.” back to article

    Mr. Keiler, a former captain in the Army’s Judge-Advocate General Corps, retired from his law practice to teach history in the Prince Georges County, Maryland, school system.

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