Fish and Chips

(The First Battle of Fallujah)

Marines abhor urban warfare more than any other form of combat.  Urban settings negate the advantages of overwhelming firepower, limit the maneuvering ability of troops, and reduce fields of observation and fires. The presence of innocent civilians, the ability of enemy forces to dress themselves as civilians and infiltrate civilian populations makes urban warfare even more complex.  It is an environment within which a few well-armed insurgents are able to impede the advance of military forces while inflicting heavy casualties at little cost to themselves —particularly if they are of the mindset that death in Jihad guarantees access to Shangri-La. The urban environment offers cover and concealment of insurgents, movement through underground infrastructures, and the placement of well-concealed booby traps and snipers.

Iraq-FallujahThe city of Fallujah —one of the most religious and culturally traditional areas of Iraq, had mostly profited under the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Most of the city’s residents favored the Ba’ath party; they were Sunnis; some were employed by Saddam’s intelligence apparatus.  Generally, however, most residents had little sympathy for Saddam in the aftermath of the collapse of his government —until they realized that the Sunni regime of some 5-million people no longer controlled the 20-millions of the Iraqi Shi’ite majority.

Following the collapse of the Ba’ath party in 2003, local residents elected a town council headed by Taha Hamed, who was able to keep the city from falling into the hands of criminal gangs.  Nominally, Hamed and his council were pro-American, and their election somewhat erroneously signaled to the Americans that the city was unlikely to fall into the hands of insurgents.  Accordingly, few US troops were assigned to Fallujah early in 2003.  On 23 April, however, elements of the 82ndAirborne entered the city, and of these, approximately 150 troops of Company C, 1stBattalion, 325thAirborne Infantry set up their headquarters in the al-Qa’id primary school.  Five days later, a crowd of around 200 citizens gathered outside the school after curfew demanding that the Americans vacate the building so that it could resume its function as a school.

The company commander was not inclined to vacate the building, however.  Tactically, it was in a good place from which to direct military operations.  The people were adamant, however, and the demands of the people became somewhat heated. The population of the crowd was building, so the American unit deployed smoke cannisters as a means of discouraging or disbursing the crowd.  At some point, Iraqi gunmen fired on US troops from within the protesting crowd.  The American soldiers returned fire, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70.  There were no US casualties.

On 30 April, another protest group gathered at the former Ba’ath party headquarters complaining about the shootings at the al-Qa’id school.  Gunfire also erupted from within this group of protesters, and members of the US 3rdArmored Cavalry Regiment returned fire; three more civilians died.  In both of these instances, US forces insisted that they had not fired upon the crowd of civilians; they had returned fire.  There’s a difference.

In any case, 82nd Airborne units were pulled out of Fallujah and replaced by elements of the 3rd Cavalry and Company B, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.  On 4 June, while on a “presence” patrol, members of B Company were hit by RPGs as they were mounting their vehicles to return to their base of operations.  Six soldiers were injured, one man was killed.  3/Cavalry requested additional forces to help them quell a growing resistance to an American presence by city residents.  Relations with local citizens was not improved when 3/Cavalry began confiscating motorcycles, asserting that such vehicles were being used in hit and run attacks on coalition forces.

On 30 June, a large explosion in a mosque killed local Sheikh Laith Khalil and eight others. The local population claimed that the Americans had fired a missile at the mosque, but the truth is that this explosion came from an accidental detonation by insurgents while constructing a bomb.

By this time, the citizens of Fallujah were openly anti-American, which was further demonstrated by a 12 February 2004 attack on a convoy that included General John Abizaid (then Commander of US forces in the Middle East), and Major General Charles Swannack (Commander, 82nd Airborne Division).

On 23 February, insurgents created a false emergency on the outskirts of the city, a ploy to divert local police away from the city center. What then occurred was a simultaneous attack on three police stations, the mayor’s office, and a civil defense base. After murdering seventeen police officers, the insurgents released 87 prisoners.

During this period, 82nd Airborne units were conducting limited operations inside the city to destroy road barriers that could hide IEDs; they supervised searches of homes and schools, and this led to exchanges of lethal gunfire with local residents.

In March, I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) assumed coalition authority over the al-Anbar Province. It was at this time when insurgent forces began to seize portions of the city; attacks upon coalition forces increased dramatically.  I MEF commander Lieutenant General James Conway (later serving as Commandant of the Marine Corps) decided to withdraw all US forces from within the city. Occasional operations continued, however, in the form of combat patrols in the outer limits of the city.

On 27 March, a covert American surveillance team was compromised and had to fight its way out of an insurgent-inspired envelopment.  On 31 March, a massive roadside bomb  killed five US personnel who were attempting to clear a main supply route (MSR) of IEDs.

Four days later, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy containing four American contractors from Blackwater USA.  Without notifying the Marine command of their itinerary, these four contractors were escorting a “harsh environment food stores” delivery and decided to take a shortcut through Fallujah —which, at the time, was Iraq’s most dangerous city.  They were driving two Mitsubishi Pajero sport utility vehicles on the main thoroughfare, designated Highway 10.  They apparently anticipated that it would only take them 20 minutes to clear the city center and be on their way.

These were capable men: one a former SEAL, another, who spoke several languages, previously served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the third man had won the Bronze Star medal in Afghanistan, and the fourth contractor had served as both an Army Ranger and a paratrooper.  As the vehicles passed through the midtown area, no Iraqi police officer flagged them down or attempt to turn them back.  Moments later, insurgents ran into the street and sprayed both vehicles with automatic rifle fire.  Neither vehicle had armor plating; three of the men were killed instantly.  A fourth was badly wounded.  They never had a chance.

The assassins jumped into vehicles and sped off.  Shortly afterwards, a crowd of men and boys approached the dead men who were still sitting inside their utility vehicles.  The lone survivor staggered out of his vehicle and collapsed on the ground. The nearby Iraqi men began to kick and stomp on his body.  Others stabbed him with knives.

A young boy ran up carrying a can of gasoline, doused the SUVs and set them ablaze.  Egged on by the older men, mere boys dragged the dead men’s smoldering bodies onto the pavement and beat their remains with their shoes to demonstrate that Americans were scum under the soles of their feet.  The insurgent led mob then attached two of the bodies to a car and dragged them through the streets.  Hundreds of men cheered.  Eventually, the bodies were hung over a bridge.

This macabre show lasted for the rest of the day.  At dusk, the remains of three bodies were dumped in a cart pulled by a gray donkey for a final triumphal parade down Highway 10.  Men and boys followed the cart shouting anti-American phrases.  It was all captured on tape.  The video would become great propaganda material for later on.

This incident was widely covered by the press and caused widespread indignation in the United States; the anger seemed to get worse with each passing hour.  But in Fallujah, the people proudly greeted news photographers. Graphic footage was sold to the networks.  The next day’s headlines were nothing short of stunning: young men smiling and waving, while behind them dangled the charred corpses of American civilians.

To the Marines, this easily-avoided incident was a tragedy.  The names of these four civilians would be added to a list that already contained dozens of names of men who were killed in the past year in or around Fallujah.  But there was nothing the Marines could do or should do.  To react to this event emotionally would play right into the hands of the insurgents; the idea was to win the war, not create a larger one.

The Marines did have a plan, however.  It involved moving back into Fallujah over the next several months, on foot, retaking Fallujah district by district and bringing with them sufficient Iraqi forces to maintain control over these districts.  One problem, though, was that the Iraqi forces had disassociated themselves from the coalition effort.  There would be no reason for the Marines to march into Fallujah if there was no one to turn liberated districts over to.  I MEF believed that the Marines could coax the Iraqis back into a full partnership.  It would take time, but that was the plan.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez [1], U. S. Army commanded the Coalition Joint Task Force; Sanchez was General Conway’s boss.  Sanchez wanted swift, visible retaliation for the Blackwater lynching.  He wanted Conway to blow the bridge.  That couldn’t work because Conway needed the bridge to run resupply convoys.  In fact, every one of Sanchez’ notions ran counter-intuitive to the long-term efforts of not creating a larger retalitory war for the four Blackwater murders.  Sanchez complained to his confidantes that he felt the Marines were timid.

In the view of Marine commander, the only sensible strategy was to regain control of Fallujah gradually, leaving Iraqis —not Marines— in charge of the city and its several districts.  But Sanchez was adamant.  The Blackwater murders amounted to political symbolism. Sanchez was getting his way; President George W. Bush was furious about the Blackwater assassinations.  It was a stinging rebuke —a challenge to America.  It was a matter of national pride.  Ambassador Paul Bremer went on television promising overwhelming retribution. General John Abizaid, General Sanchez, and Ambassador Bremer were of one mind; they recommended to the President that Fallujah be seized immediately.  George Bush’s answer wasn’t long in coming: his order to CENTCOM was “go get those responsible,” no waiting, no delay.

The last time the Marines had fought street by street was in the Battle for Hue City during the Viet Nam War.  The fight had lasted a month.  Within that month, entire blocks of houses had been leveled. More than six hundred Americans died; more than 3,700 were wounded.  Civilian deaths exceeded six-thousand.  So, the Marines knew about urban warfare —they knew more about it than anyone in Washington, and they knew more about it than General Sanchez or Paul Bremer. Nevertheless, the Marines had their orders.

Fallujah Raid
Urban Warfare — the toughest of all combat. Photo obtained from the public domain

On 3 April, Marines were ordered to conduct offensive operations against Fallujah [2].  It was not what the Marine commanders wanted; they preferred surgical strikes and carefully organized raids against suspect insurgents.  Nevertheless, in accordance with Joint Task Force directives, Marines launched a major assault in an attempt to pacify Fallujah on 4 April. Two-thousand troops surrounded the city; aerial strikes destroyed four homes thought to be enemy bases of operation. All roads leading out from the city were blocked; a local radio station was seized, and leaflets were dropped inside the city warning residents to remain in their homes.

Marine planners estimated as many as 24 hardcore guerrilla factions were operating inside the city. Their armaments included RPGs, mortars, anti-aircraft weapons, and machineguns.  One-third of the city’s population streamed out of the city in an attempt to avoid the bloodshed.

As it happened, events in Fallujah set off widespread fighting throughout central Iraq and the lower Euphrates, perpetrated by Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.  Simultaneously, a Sunni rebellion broke out in Ramadi.  All foreigners became targets of opportunity; some were captured and held for ransom, others were killed out of hand.  Elements of Iraqi police and the civil defense corps either turned against coalition forces or simply abandoned their posts.

Marines tightened their hold over Fallujah, but the rebels held on.  Air strikes frequently targeted insurgent positions; gunships attacked targets with Gatling guns and howitzers.  Marine Corps snipers became the core element of Conway’s strategy. Insurgent leaders were never sure that they weren’t being observed through the scope of a .50 Caliber Rifle. The work of snipers was supported by the Tactical Psychological Operations Detachment, who lured terrorist insurgents into the open, where an introduction to Ala was almost a certainty.  After three days of fighting, the Marines had gained control over a quarter of the city, but along with the destruction of guerrilla elements, civilian casualties increased as well.

Suddenly, on 9 April, Ambassador Paul Bremer announced that US forces would observe a ceasefire in order to facilitate negotiations between coalition forces, the Iraqi governing council, various insurgent groups, and city spokespersons.  The ceasefire did permit the provision of humanitarian aid to city residents, but by this time, six-hundred Iraqis had been killed, and many of these were non-combatants.  Iraqi insurgents continued to hold the city.

On 13 April, Marines were attacked by a group that had taken over a mosque.  An airstrike destroyed the mosque, and of course the locals were outraged.  Two days later, an F-16 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb over the northern district of Fallujah; the airstrike prompted negotiators to devise a plan to reintroduce joint US/Iraqi patrols in the city.  Negotiations fell apart, however, and the city remained a major center for opposition to the US-appointed Iraqi Interim government.  There was also a shift in the nature of Iraqi forces operating inside the city: the secular, nationalist, and ex-Ba’athist groups had lost their influence and these assets were absorbed by local warlords, men with ties to organized crime, or by adherents to Wahhabism.

On 27 April, guerillas attacked a Marine position, forcing the Marines to call for air support.  On the next day, air elements from the USS George Washington began flying sorties over Fallujah.  Thirteen laser-guided bombs were dropped on suspected insurgent positions.

On 1 May 2004, General Conway announced a decision to turn over any remaining operations to the newly formed Fallujah Brigade, a Sunni security force formed, trained, and armed by the CIA.  Within four months, the Fallujah Brigade, armed with weapons paid for by the American taxpayer, joined the Iraqi insurgency.  The treasonous behavior of the Fallujah Brigade led to the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Sources:

  1. West, Bing. No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. Bantam Books, 2005
  2. Foulk, Vincent L. The Battle for Fallujah: Occupation, Resistance, and Stalemate in the War in Iraq. McFarland & Company, 2007

Endnotes:

[1] If there was ever a case to be made against affirmative action, General Sanchez could be it.  Not only should we question his competence, we should also question his leadership ability, particularly as it relates to accepting responsibility for the debacle at Abu Ghraib and his failure to demonstrate moral courage by standing up to an equally incompetent Paul Bremer.  This is not nitpicking; American lives were lost because of this man’s failure as an American general officer.  His post-retirement criticism of the media and political leadership is nothing if not pure cheek.

[2] Given the size of the Fallujah in terms of its area, urban structure, and its population (est. 300,000), there was no way that coalition forces could avoid a very bloody confrontation with Islamist zealots.  Ultimately, however, it would be the task of small units to implement multiple assaults in this urban setting.  This kind of warfare demands the collective efforts of infantry squads and supporting arms.  Their task involved isolating the objective, suppressing enemy threats, advancing the assault element, conducting the assault, clearing buildings, and consolidating/reorganizing the assault force. It isn’t simply a matter of clearing enemy-held buildings: military personnel anticipated fanatical resistance by insurgents, but it also involved encountering booby-traps and improvised explosive devices where they would inflict the most damage and impede any progress of an assault.  Urban warfare is the most psychologically demanding form of combat.

[3] The title of this post refers to a British colloquialism for urban warfare, meaning to Fight In Someone’s House and Creating Havoc In People’s Streets.

 

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Fish and Chips”

    1. The designation of the president as “commander in chief” was a bad idea. I suppose the founding fathers made this designation because Washington was, in fact, commander in chief of the Continental Army. Since then, with but few exceptions, what most of our presidents know about shooting involves nothing more than squirrels and ducks. It would be interesting if our top military commander answered only to the congress, whose power it is to declare (and fund) wars.

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    1. When Bush the Elder decided to save Kuwait (and, therefore, earn for himself a presidential library paid for by Kuwait), then Chairman of the JCS Colin Powell warned him to the effect, ‘if you go into a china shop and break something, you end up paying for it.’ Never mind that Bush the Elder or his Secretary of State actually created the circumstances that led us to war … Colin offered good advice. Fast forward to the post-invasion period in Iraq in 2003, Colin Powell is now the Secretary of State. One would think that Bush the Younger might have received the same advice. Maybe he did. Maybe our invasion was simply a matter of Bush trying on his big-boy pants. We’ll ignore the alleged weapons of mass destruction … they weren’t simply alleged. But after Bush the Younger broke the china, and created a power vacuum inside Iraq, the USA was obliged to take responsibility for dealing with the insurgency. None of the Bush players were very sophisticated in their thinking or actions but suffice to say that it fell upon the US military to “pacify” Iraqi cities. That’s why US forces went into Fallujah. As stated in the post, the Marines had the right idea about how to address “pacification,” but they were never asked for an opinion. Bush-Rumsfeld-Bremer-Abizaid-Sanchez made the call … and it was most assuredly the wrong call. The wrong call in combat always causes needless death and injury, to soldiers and civilians alike.

      Thank you for stopping by, Kid …

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    1. Most news reports out of Iraq were biased in favor of an anti-war agenda. Journalists were instructed to find instances of war crimes, and so that’s what they reported on. It made their editors happy and fattened their bank accounts. Life was good. Meanwhile, American troops had to contend with a dangerous non-uniformed enemy and incompetent political leaders. No wonder everyone wanted to reenlist!

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