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The Fight for Falluja

How American and Iraqi forces will try to take down the terrorist stronghold.

8:20 AM, Nov 8, 2004 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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AS JUDGMENT DAY for the terrorist hotbed of Falluja approaches, anxiety is building over what could be one of the bloodiest battles of America's war on terrorism. Insurgents holed up in the city speak of widespread violence across Iraq should U.S. forces assault and Sunni religious leaders warn that an assault will only result in further alienation of the Sunni minority and an eventual boycott of the upcoming elections in January.

Likewise, American political and military leaders realize that as it stands, the situation in Falluja is untenable. After four private security contractors were ambushed and lynched in Falluja last spring, Marines surrounding the city moved in to clear out the terrorist presence. At the time, Marine commanders knew that taking Falluja would be a tough, bloody slog. Urban fighting is a dirty business. Civilians would be killed, Marines would be killed, the city would be badly damaged. But the troops of the I Marine Expeditionary Force were prepared to do whatever was required to take Falluja back from the insurgents and foreign terrorists.

But before the final assault, the Marines were withdrawn--replaced by a hastily assembled security force of former Iraqi army officers, local gunmen, and even some of the very same insurgents who'd been firing at Marines just days before. Only recently have senior Marine officers, including the commander of I MEF at the time, Lt. Gen. James Conway, admitted they were pulled back from the brink of victory for political considerations. And, they admit, the so-called "Falluja Brigade," was a failure--having been quickly usurped by the insurgents and foreign terrorists, even to the point of handing over weapons to the enemy they were sent into Falluja to interdict.

Now, six months later, the landscape--both political and military--is quite different. It has become clear to many that the city is the nexus of terrorist activity and organization throughout Iraq. While interim prime minister Ayad Allawi gave negotiations and diplomacy a chance--some of it quite Machiavellian in its attempt to pit one clan against another--the iron grip of foreign jihadists keeps the city in a state of siege, its residents and ethnic leaders powerless to maneuver. But buoyed by the successes in Najaf and Sadr City and the still tenuous hold the Iraqi government has in Samarra, both U.S. and Iraqi officials are poised to make their move.

When Falluja II goes down, it will be bloody and violent, military leaders admit. According to interviews with two former staff officers who helped develop the strategy for April's assault, the Marines today will have to move block-to-block, flushing the enemy out using tanks and dismounted infantry. It will be critical to involve the nascent Iraqi army in the battle as well. Once U.S. forces flush insurgents from their positions, Iraqi troops will need to "occupy" those positions so that the residents of Falluja see an Iraqi face standing in their street corner, not an American one.

The battle must be preceded by a potent psychological operations campaign to get residents to leave, or if they stay, to remain in their homes. The prospect of civilian casualties weighs heavily on military leaders and reducing them is foremost in their minds. The psy-ops must also show a U.S. victory to be inevitable. Notice the latest coverage on the news networks: footage of Marines rehearsing their urban warfare tactics, daily artillery and air strikes on insurgent positions in the city, and calls for the residents of Falluja to leave the city as soon as possible. Clearly the psy-ops have already begun.

The forces will also have a few technological advantages up their sleeve. The city now has near constant coverage by unmanned aerial vehicles, including those carrying the Hellfire missile. These drones can provide visual coverage of insurgent positions and ammunition dumps, giving leaders up-to-the-minute intelligence. They will also be able to warn units--down to the company and platoon level--of enemy forces around a corner or on the rooftops.

The use of air power will be significant as well. More effective than artillery, precision air strikes can take out enemy positions in one building without significantly damaging others nearby. Over the past month, the Air Force has been dropping, for the first time ever, 500-pound satellite-guided bombs. This ordnance, the Air Force claims, is just big enough to take down a building, but not big enough to take down a whole block. (The Falluja vets also suggest using bunker-buster bombs that can burrow deeply into a building before detonating and essentially bring the building down on itself.)

Snipers should be used for deep reconnaissance and direct fire support and special operations forces used to intercept high-level terrorists and insurgent leaders trying to flee the onslaught. Iraqi forces--particularly the well-trained commando troops--can be used to flush insurgents from the holy sites they once considered an easy refuge.

Yet with all those advantages of technology, superior force, and some well-trained Iraqi allies, the insurgents still have the edge. Defending a city is easier than taking one--just ask the Russians. The enemy has had six months to prepare defenses, to booby trap buildings, to build fall-back positions, to train and horde weapons. Veterans of the first battle for Falluja admit that while the majority of the enemy consists of "fair weather insurgents," there is a solid group of highly motivated and well-trained terrorists who are in control of the city. The enemy there will not be easy to defeat, the Falluja I vets contend, and those of us watching the fight unfold should be ready for a potentially long, violent, and messy slog.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.