The Battles of Al-Fallujah: urban warfare and the growth of air power.

Author:Head, William

The First Battle for Al-Fallujah: Background

Before the United States and her allies invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, Al-Fallujah was known only as a small city, forty-two miles west of Baghdad. Favored by the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein, it was a Ba'athist stronghold populated by loyal Sunni supporters of the regime in the Iraqi capital. Soon after the incursion began, it made worldwide headlines when a Royal Air Force (RAF) jet aiming at a key bridge, unintentionally dropped two laser guided bombs (LGBs) on a crowded market in the heart of the city killing dozens of civilians.

From that time until the last American troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, Al-Fallujah became the main center of anti-Coalition violence. Perhaps it is not surprising that this city and region turned into the heart of pro-Hussein resistance during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and was witness to the bloodiest battles of the entire Second Persian Gulf War. Indeed, in the three battles for control of the city between 2003 and 2005, Coalition forces lost roughly 150 killed and had 1,500 wounded. This in an area commonly called the Sunni Triangle and populated by Sunnis and Ba'athists who lost nearly everything when Saddam Hussein's regime fell. (1)

The determined resistance and the savagery that would characterize the upcoming battles for this small city on the periphery of the Iraqi state would surprise the Americans and bring into question the level of success they had in finally taking Al-Fallujah. The cost in lives also has left many questions as to how one should view these battles. In his poignant article, "Who Won the Battle of Fallujah?" Jonathan F. Keiler asks, "Was Fallujah a battle we lost in April 2004, with ruinous results? Or was it a battle we won in November?" He answers his own questions by saying, "The answer is yes. If that sounds awkward, it is because Fallujah was an awkward battle without an easy parallel in U.S. military history." (2)

In fact, many analysts have compared the destruction of buildings and the ferocity of the fighting to the U.S. struggle to retake Hue city during the Tet Offensive in 1968. In one regard, the comparison is apt since, as Keiler points out, "Enemy insurgents defending Fallujah were formidable because many of them were willing to fight to the death." (3) The same had been true of the Vietnamese insurgents during the earlier struggle. However, there were many differences in the two battles as well, not the least of which was the skilled use of air forces at Al-Fallujah, especially during the second battle that lasted between November 7 and December 23, 2004. Of special note was the nearly obsessive effort to keep aerial attacks and artillery fire as precise as possible in Al-Fallujah.

First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) operations officer, declared that weapon precision was unprecedented. He also described how surgical air strikes employing LGBs and/or other forms of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) could "topple a minaret hiding snipers, without causing damage to an adjacent mosque." When asked to compare Al-Fallujah to Hue, he posited, "Is this like Vietnam? Absolutely not, Hue City ... was leveled, and there wasn't precision targeting, and they didn't secure it in the amount of time that we've secured Al-Fallujah." (4)

One other important lesson to come from this controversial battle was the steady increase in the use of air power in urban combat. As I will discuss in detail later, traditional U.S. Army and Marine doctrine (developed in the wars of the twentieth century) had never really included the use of air forces. The first battle unfolded in the customary manner of urban combat. During the second, the effective use of aerial assets increased to a point where it altered the very theory of how to execute urban battles in the future. In February 2005, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, upon departing Iraq, wrote his Air Force counterpart, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, complimenting his air personnel on their vital role in the battle saying that without, "the prompt and sustained air support our land forces received," we would not have won the battle. He focused on the fact that air power from all services covered the skies of Iraq from 60,000 feet to the deck with all manner of aircraft ranging from Air Force fighters, gunships, and remotely-piloted weapons systems to Army and Marine helicopter gunships. (5)

To be sure, traditional air power roles and missions during Persian Gulf Wars focused on strikes against what could best be described as strategic targets, such as, Command and Control ([C.sup.2])bridges, communications nodes, and electric grids. While tactical roles such as close air support (CAS) and vehicular attacks increased over time even this was often more cheaply executed by helicopter gunships using "hell-fire" missiles, than fixed-wing aircraft using 500-pound bombs. However, this all changed with the advancements in precision-guided ordnance and high tech targeting lasers and weapons. These advances included highly sophisticated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, such as, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) combined with extremely accurate CAS targeting equipment on aircraft, such as, the AC-130.

One Associated Press article reported that there were at least twenty kinds of aircraft supporting ground troops during the second battle for Al-Fallujah. As the correspondent described it, "The skies over Fallujah are so crowded with U.S. military aircraft that they are layered in stacks above the city, from low-flying helicopters and swooping attack jets to a jet-powered unmanned spy drone that flies above 60,000 feet." To quote Air Force Lt. Col. David Staven, who headed the ground targeting process, "'we call it the wedding cake. It's layered all the way up.'" (6) It was from this major battle, that ended in tactical success but only limited strategic achievement that the primary maxims of how to conduct urban combat evolved from the death and destruction to focus on the effectiveness and potential decisiveness of air power in urban combat environments.

The Buildup to a Blood Bath

During the regime of Saddam Hussein, Al-Fallujah had thrived economically because many citizens were employed as police, military officials, and intelligence officers by the dictator's administration. As he fell from power, there was little sympathy for him in much of the rest of Iraq since most Iraqis considered Saddam to be an oppressive tyrant. It should also be noted that the city was one of the most religious and culturally traditional areas in Iraq. (7)

When the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq in March 2003, it appeared that those living in the city would be pro-American. Indeed, after the Ba'athist's regime's collapse, the locals elected a nominally pro-American town council headed by Taha Bidaywi Hamed, who quickly restored law and order to Al-Fallujah. Given these events, Coalition leadership determined it was unnecessary to commit large numbers of troops to the region. (8)

All this changed on April 23, 2003, when 700 soldiers from the U.S. 82d Airborne Division entered Al-Fallujah, and 150 members of Company C occupied the Al-Qa'ida primary school. The occupiers soon established an evening curfew that offended many of those living in Al-Fallujah. Having already been sensitized by Allied air strikes that had killed citizens and destroyed property in the surrounding area, by April 28, tensions had grown to a critical level. That morning a crowd of 200 people gathered outside the school after curfew and demanded that U.S. troops leave the building, so the school could begin operations again. The situation soon escalated and the protesters became increasingly agitated. To disperse the growing mob, the soldiers fired smoke canisters. Instead of breaking up the crowd it only angered them more. According to U.S. forces, at this point, one of the protesters fired on the Americans who returned fire on the mass of people. Soon members of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, and 82d Airborne Division were firing randomly into the crowd. When it was over, a minute later, they had killed seventeen people and wounded seventy others. No U.S. or Coalition casualties were reported. (9)

AS embers from the clash smoldered, the Iraqis regrouped and, forty-eight hours later, initiated another protest in front of the former Ba'ath party headquarters denouncing the carnage of the 28th. Again, depending on the sources one reads, either American forces were fired on or simply fired without provocation. This time, soldiers from the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment fired into the crowd killing three more Iraqis. Over the next month, Iraqis protests grew larger and more belligerent. Fearing for their safety, on June 4, the 3d Armored Cavalry commander requested an additional 1,500 troops to help quell the growing resistance. (10)

In June, to put an end to drive-by attacks, U.S. forces began confiscating motorcycles and other vehicles from local residents. However, this did little to help matters. In fact, it only made them worse. Then, on June 30, a massive explosion ripped through an important local mosque killing the imam, Sheikh Laith Khalil, and eight other people. while later evidence suggested that anti-Coalition forces planted the bombs, many Iraqis accused the Americans of having fired a missile at the mosque. U.S. officials claimed the explosion had occurred accidentally when insurgents were constructing bombs. (11) The cruel irony was that two months after the war was supposed to have ended with President George W. Bush's declaration of "mission accomplished," violence in Al-Fallujah was growing into what would prove to be the two bloodiest battles of the entire war.

From Bad to Worse

By the following year, with many Americans back home still expecting a final withdrawal of Coalition forces, the situation in Al-Fallujah was perched on the...

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