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Posted on Nov 22, 2010 in War College

Anniversary of the Battle for Fallujah

By Richard S. Lowry

Two weeks ago, November 7, marked the sixth anniversary of the beginning of Operation Phantom Fury, the battle to free Fallujah, Iraq, from the control of insurgents who had turned the city into a well-fortified position. Seven bloody weeks later, the insurgents had been defeated. It was the longest battle for American troops since the fight for the city of Hue during the Vietnam War and the largest battle of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ninety-five Americans were killed and another 1,000 wounded, but more than 1,400 insurgents died in the battle.

In May of this year, Richard S. Lowry, author of Marines in the Garden of Eden, gave‘s readers a preview of his book New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah. In recognition of the anniversary of that battle and the determined American troops who won it, he provides the following description of what they faced, largely excerpted from New Dawn, the most detailed account of the battle yet published.


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Six years ago, at 7 PM local time in Iraq, the 10,000+ Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines of Task Force Blue Diamond started Operation Phantom Fury with their movement to take the western Peninsula and block the two bridges across the Euphrates River. Task Force Wolfpack moved to secure the Fallujah General Hospital and an Iraqi National Guard facility first. The western diversion by The Wolfpack masked the mass movement of the 1st Marine Division into its attack positions all along the northern edge of the city and blocked the enemy’s ability to resupply from the west.

Fallujah has always been a restive city. With the ever-shifting political climate, the tribes and clans in, and around, Fallujah have had little regard for the artificial international boundaries. To the people of Anbar, smuggling is all in a day’s work; a necessity of commerce. So, Fallujah is peppered with trucking industry businesses. Flatbeds and long-haul trucks continually clog the main road. Truck stops, machine shops and junkyards dominate the industrial area. If you need a tire changed, a chassis welded, radiator soldered or a new radio in your truck, Fallujahans stood ready to provide the service. Once the Americans arrived in 2003, the city had the talent and resources to turn to a new industry – the manufacture of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and the smuggling of weapons.

Fallujah’s main thoroughfare contained a mixture of magnificent mansions, majestic mosques, multi-storied concrete buildings, and mud brick shanties. The road was teeming with BMWs, donkey carts and long-haul trucks. More large mansions and estates lined the banks of the Euphrates River. Throughout the city, there were many poor neighborhoods, some middle class areas and enclaves which contained luxurious homes.

Like most Iraqi cities, Fallujah was a city of cinder blocks. Nearly every building was surrounded by a wall. Some walls had been meticulously constructed, obviously the work of a proud stonemason. Others were thrown together in a helter-skelter fashion and many had the look of the repetitive cycle of destruction, repair, more destruction and hasty re-assembly. Blocks were stacked upon blocks with little or no mortar, just waiting to be pushed over again. Most houses were small two or three story buildings with concrete slab floors and thick roofs. Compound walls protected large homes with landscaped courtyards, marble floors and ornate furnishings.

Fallujah’s homes were built to shelter their residents from the sweltering heat of the Iraqi summers and the continuous cycle of senseless violence. Concrete walls and roofs were sometimes three feet thick, with another three feet of dirt piled on the flat roofs. They were veritable bunkers. Most courtyard doors were made of sheet metal with two or three locks. Doors leading into homes were either metal or protected by a locked metal gate. Fallujah could not have been more attractive to the resistance. The population was distrusting of outsiders and naturally rebellious. Its workers provided the where-with-all to smuggle weapons, explosives and foreign fighters, its craftsmen provided the talent to build bombs and every home was a fortress.

As 2003 turned to 2004, the cancer inside Fallujah was growing. Most Fallujahans were unemployed. The insurgents were able to launch attacks on nearby Baghdad and to control commercial traffic. The city was home to gunrunners and smugglers. It seemed that every storefront had a back room full of weapons. Everyone knew who specialized in particular items. Some sold machine guns while others provided sophisticated night vision devices. The local bazaars were crawling with merchants of death.

Sunni-dominated Fallujah was home to many of Saddam’s elite followers. The city was filled with former Iraqi Army, Republican Guard and Ba’ath Party officials who were all cronies of Saddam Hussein. Many of these Iraqis wanted to continue the struggle to return Saddam Hussein to power and all had been put out of work with the dissolution of the Ba’ath Party and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. The disgruntled bureaucrats and soldiers wanted to reestablish the privilege, power and prestige they once held during Saddam’s reign. Some former officers saw the violence in Fallujah as an opportunity to regain their influence. So, they formed the “Fallujah Brigade.”

The Brigade was made up primarily of out-of-work Iraqi soldiers. Their officers were corrupt and bore no loyalty to the fledgling, Shia-dominated Iraqi government. They hated the Americans and, more likely than not, supported the insurgents. At best, the Fallujah Brigade was ineffective and at worst, was part of the problem. But, in April of 2004, the Fallujah Brigade was a necessary evil. The American military leadership wanted to put an Iraqi face on the solution to the violence in Fallujah. The Marines sincerely hoped that the Fallujah Brigade could start the much-needed reconciliation process between the powers in Fallujah and the Iraqi government. “We tried to get the Iraqis help us solve the problem” (LtGen John Sattler telephone interview, 12/3/07). As it turned out, the Fallujah Brigade’s dismal failure would finally show the government in Baghdad that they needed help in curing the ills within Fallujah. Prime Minister Iyad Alawi and his leadership finally understood that the Iraqis themselves were not yet prepared to solve this problem.

Within months, the Fallujah Brigade vaporized and the city once again became an enemy sanctuary. Emboldened insurgents began spreading terror from their safe haven in Fallujah. Roving gangs attacked convoys. Foreign jihadists rallied in Fallujah, then spread terror in a hundred-mile radius through kidnappings, torture and murder. The city filled with local and foreign Islamic extremists at an alarming rate. They allied with local criminals, thugs and warlords. There were scores of neighborhood gangs and a dozen key leaders.

Most of the tribal Sheikhs viewed the Americans as usurpers of their authority. Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, cleric, chieftain and mystic, was the foremost insurgent leader. He led the town’s governing council and was a mover and shaker. He viewed the Americans as invaders and wanted to drive them out of Iraq. Janabi’s principal henchman was a local electrician turned jihadi. Omar Hadid was Janabi’s enforcer and motivator. He had allied himself with Janabi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the early days of the Fallujah insurgency and had become a front-line leader during the first fight. Hadid was a dangerous man, eager to die in the fight to rid his land of the infidel.

Abu Musab Zarqawi was probably the most famous of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leaders. Jordanian-born, he fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan where he was wounded in 2002. He fled to Baghdad where he was treated and recuperated in an Iraqi hospital. Then he dropped out of sight. The militant leader built the largest terrorist training camp in the world on a small finger of Iraqi land near Muqdadiyah, surrounded by Iranian mountains on three sides (Robinson, Linda Masters of Chaos – The Secret History of the Special Forces, PublicAffairs, New York, 2004. Operation Viking Hammer). When American Special Forces chased him out of his hilltop stronghold in March of 2003, Zarqawi fled and eventually ended up in Fallujah where he became the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Janabi and Zarqawi had claimed victory in the first Fallujah fight. They used their claims to recruit jihadists from around the world. The call went out – come to Fallujah and kill Americans. They knew the fight was not over. Inside the city, they set out to fortify their positions, knowing the Marines would return. They built bunkers, roadblocks, and obstacles. They set up ambush sites and buried thousands of mines and IEDs. They dug trenches and fortified fighting positions. They knocked holes in walls that were just large enough for a man to crawl through. These “rat holes” allowed the insurgents to move from compound to compound within the city without having to go out into the streets. They did everything they could to prepare to kill as many Americans as possible in the next round of fighting. If the Marines could overcome these defenses, crush the resistance inside the city and break the enemy’s grip on the people of Fallujah, it would herald the beginning of the end for the insurgency. Victory in Fallujah would bring a New Dawn of hope to the people of Iraq.

The Iraq government and the US military command knew that the January, 2005 elections would not succeed under the threat of bombings and reprisals from the thugs in Fallujah. They knew that they malignancy need to be cut out. But, the New Dawn would have to wait for sunset. Major General Richard F. Natonski wanted to attack under cover of darkness. At 1900 on November 8th, the sky lit up on the eastern horizon and a distant rumble rolled in from Camp Fallujah. Then, a smoke barrage shrouded the entire northern edge of the city. More 155mm howitzer rounds came screaming in like freight trains, exploding on enemy targets and shaking the ground a mile from their impact. Then, the main attack was launched with several coordinated breaching operations at key points along the railroad tracks.

The fight would last for several bloody weeks and would be the largest American urban fight since Hue City, Vietnam. By Christmas every enemy fighter would be cleared from the city. Operation Phantom Fury would end up being the most important fight in the war and would mark the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Nine Navy Crosses and twenty-two Silver Stars were awarded for heroism in Fallujah.

Read those unforgettable stories and more in New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah.