In April 2004, coalition forces in Iraq estimated around 500 hardcore non-state actors living in the city of Fallujah. Within seven months, however, that number increased to around 3,500 armed insurgents representing just about every extremist group in Iraq, including al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IQI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Secret Army of Iraq, and the National Islamic Army (1920 Revolutionary Brigade). Assisting these committed extremists were an additional 1,000 part-time insurgents.
Within that seven months, the insurgents prepared fortified positions in anticipation of another coalition forces assault. They dug tunnels, trenches, spider-holes and set into place numerous IEDs. They also set in the so-called Jersey Barriers, creating strong points behind which they could fire on approaching enemy. In some areas, they filled empty homes with bottles of propane gas, drums of gasoline, ordinance, and wired these materials for remote detonation should coalition forces enter those buildings during clearing operations.
Thanks to the liberal proliferation of U.S. manufactured arms, the insurgents were heavily armed with M-14s, M-16s, body armor, western-style uniforms and helmets, and handguns. The insurgents also booby-trapped vehicles parked alongside roadways, streets, and alleys. They bricked up stairwells to prevent coalition troops from getting to the roofs of buildings and established avenues of approach to deadly fields of fire.
According to coalition intelligence reports, in addition to the Iraqis, the insurgents included fighters from Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria — and perhaps a few from the U.K. and U.S. As is true in almost every armed conflict, civilian residents began fleeing the city. By late October, around 80% of the citizenry had vacated their homes and businesses.
In October, the U.S. and Iraqi military forces began establishing checkpoints around the entire city to prevent anyone from entering and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee — many of whom disguised themselves as members of fleeing families. Mapping specialists began to capture aerial imagery to prepare maps of the city. Iraqi interpreters joined coalition ground units. While these tasks were underway, coalition forces began to deliver airstrikes and artillery fire on areas known to contain insurgents.
American, British, and Iraqi forces totaled around 14,000 men. Of these, 6,500 U.S. Marines, 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and 2,500 U.S. Navy personnel. Coalitions forces formed two regimental combat teams. RCT-1 included the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1), 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (NMCB-4), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23 (NMCB-23), and the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7CAV).
RCT-7 included 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8), 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines (Charlie 1/12), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 2nd Infantry (2/2INF), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 12th Cavalry (2/12CAV) and the 1st Battalion, U.S. 6th Field Artillery (1/6thFLD). Around 2,000 Iraqi troops integrated with the RCTs during the assault. The forward elements received air support from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rdMAW) and other available Navy and Air Force fixed-wing air units. Additional Army battalions provided artillery support, and the U.S. Special Operations Command provided snipers.
The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment (1/BWR) assisted coalition forces with the encirclement of Fallujah, designated Task Force Black. D Squadron, SAS prepared to take part in the assault and would have, were it not for British politicians who reneged at the last minute before the assault.
Ground operations kicked off during the night of 7 November 2004 when Marine reconnaissance teams and Navy Special Warfare teams (SEALS), moved into the city’s outer perimeter.
With U.S. Army Special Forces Advisors, the Iraqi 6th Commando Battalion, supported by two platoons of mechanized infantry from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, breached the city perimeter from the west and south. Additional support elements included a platoon of Army tanks, Marine light armored vehicles, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines (1/23). Initial successes included capturing the general hospital, Blackwater Bridge, and several villages on the western edge of the city next to the Euphrates River. In the south, Marines from 1/3 entered the western approach securing the Jurf Kas Sukr Bridge. Coalition commanders intended these early movements as a diversion to confuse the insurgent command element.
Once Seabees disabled electrical power at two sub-stations at the northeast and northwest sections of Fallujah, RCT-1, and RCT-7, each supported by SEAL and Recon teams and augmented by 2/7CAV, 2/2INF, and Joint Tactical Aircraft Control (JTAC) elements assaulted the northern edge of the city. Four additional infantry battalions followed the assault element as the second wave. Their mission focused on clearing operations and the seizure of significant buildings and intersections.
Augmented by the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Alpha Company 1/5, the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team infiltrated the city, searching for and destroying fleeing enemies wherever they could find them. 1/BWR set up patrolling operations in the eastern sector. Overwatch aircraft included USAF F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, B-52s, and AC-130 gunships. Air Force assets included MQ-1 Predator aircraft for air surveillance and precision airstrikes.
By the early morning hours of 8 November, six U.S. and Iraqi battalions began a full assault behind massive artillery and aerial bombardments. The coalition’s initial objectives included the central train station, which was used as a staging point for follow-on assaults. Marines entered the Hay Nib al-Dubat and al-Naziza city districts by early afternoon. As the Marines advanced, Seabees bulldozed buildings and cleared streets of battle debris to clear the way for other coalition movements and support mechanisms. Before dusk, the Marines had reached the city center.
Most of the heavy fighting ended by 13 November, but a series of determined enemy strongholds continued to resist coalition forces. Marines and special operations had to flush these isolated teams, described as “mopping up” operations, which lasted until the 23rd of December 2004. Once the city was “mostly” clear of insurgents, coalition forces shifted their efforts toward assisting residents returning to their homes — many of whom could not believe the damage inflicted on their city.
Military historians claim that the Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the Iraq War and the worst battle involving American troops since the Vietnam War. Coalition forces suffered 99 killed and 570 wounded. Iraqi units lost eight dead and 43 wounded. Enemy casualties are only estimates because of the lack of official records. Coalition and Iraqi forces captured 1,500 prisoners and killed an estimated 2,000 insurgents. Considering the number of explosives deployed inside the city, a high casualty rate is understandable. The 1st Marine Division fired 5,685 high explosive artillery rounds. The 3rdMAW dropped 318 precision bombs, fired 391 rockets and missiles, and unleashed over 93,000 machine gun and cannon rounds.
The damage to Fallujah’s residences, mosques, city services, and businesses was extensive. Once known as the “City of Mosques,” coalition forces destroyed 66 of 133 mosques — those primarily defended by insurgents and those used to store arms and munitions. Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were destroyed in the offensive; half to two-thirds of all remaining buildings had notable damage. Before the attack, somewhere around 350,000 people lived in Fallujah. Of those, approximately 200,000 were permanently displaced.
Despite the success of the battle, it proved to be less than a decisive engagement. Important (non-local) insurgent leaders escaped from the city before the action commenced leaving mostly local militants behind to face the coalition forces. This was a well-established trend among Islamist leaders: stir the pot and then run for it. At the beginning of 2005, insurgent attacks gradually increased within and around Fallujah, including IED attacks. Notable among these was a suicide car bomb attack that killed 6 Marines. Thirteen other Marines were injured in the attack. Fourteen months later, insurgents were once more operating in large numbers and in the open. By September 2006, the situation in al-Anbar Province deteriorated to such an extent that only the pacified city of Fallujah remained outside the control of Islamic extremists.
A third push was mounted from September 2006 until mid-January 2007. After four years of bitter fighting, Fallujah finally came under the control of the Iraqi military — that is until ISIS pushed the Iraqis out in 2014. This began a new round of fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic militants. Iraqi military forces reclaimed Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in 2016.
Courage Under Fire
The U.S. government cited the following individuals for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the operation:
- Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, U.S. Army — Medal of Honor
- Sergeant Rafael Peralta, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
- First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
- Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
- Corporal Dominic Esquibel, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross (award declined)
- Bellavia, D. C. House to House: An Epic Memoir of War. Free Press, 2007.
- Kasal, B. My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story. Meredith Books, 2007.
- West, B. No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah. Bantam Books, 2005
- O’Donnell, P. We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah. Da Capo Press, 2006
- Livingston, G. Fallujah With Honor: First Battalion, Eighth Marines Role in Operation Phantom Fury. Caisson Press, 2006
 NMCB = Seabees
 Two Marine engineers died when their bulldozer collapsed into the Euphrates River. Forty-two insurgents died in fighting along the river.
 Some of the dead may have been innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the battle. The International Red Cross estimated 800 killed civilian deaths.
 Fighting alongside Dominic on the date of the cited action was LCpl David Houck, his closest friend. Esquibel was cited for carrying two wounded Marines to safety under a hail of gunfire. On the following day, Houck was killed in action. Esquibel would not accept the Navy Cross because he felt that those Marines, who lived, would have done the same for him.