The stage is set for the third battle of Fallujah, and this one has the hallmarks of being the worst yet as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are currently embroiled in retaking the city.
ISF announced May 22 that Fallujah is the next major target in the ongoing campaign to retake territory, particularly large population centers, from the Islamic State. ISF, backed by American air power, has made significant gains against ISIS forces in Iraq, particularly in the city of Ramadi and the Nineveh Plain region. The seizure of Ramadi left many questioning what the next target would be, with all eyes immediately turning toward Mosul, Iraq’s second city and ISIS’ de facto capital in Iraq.
The operation for Mosul, however, was officially paused by the Iraqi government after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced last Friday Fallujah is the next target. This was announced despite Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford confirming “operations against Mosul have already started” in late February.
Fallujah presents a dangerous situation for all parties involved, but particularly for the Sunni population living in the city. The Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias (Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs) that make up a significant portion of the force marching on Fallujah are notorious for their hatred of ISIS and its radical Sunni ideology. ISIS, in turn, considers Shiites heretics. The PMUs have been accused of engaging in war crimes against Sunnis when retaking territory from ISIS, despite officially being a part of ISF. Ironically, some of the horrendous actions taken by the PMUs are similar to those of ISIS — including kidnappings, ransoms and mass killings.
The ongoing assault is just one of many attacks the people of Fallujah have experienced in recent years.
Fallujah was an integral bastion of support for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Located in the area known as the “Sunni Triangle,” Fallujah is only 40 miles from the capital of Baghdad and was home to many of Hussein’s Baath party officials. The city was spared from much of the fighting that leveled other areas in Iraq during the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
Initially, it was thought that Fallujah would not be a significant problem during the U.S. occupation. After the Hussein government fell, a U.S.-friendly mayor was elected and the city was able to maintain some semblance of order — unlike much of Iraq.
The situation in Fallujah took a drastic turn after U.S. forces entered the city in April 2003. Given the perceived safety of the area, only a small contingent of 250 soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division were deployed to a former school. A protest broke out the night of April 28, with the crowd demanding the soldiers vacate the premises. The situation soon turned violent as protesters began firing AK-47s, prompting an exchange with the soldiers.
Fallujah went down a path of no return, quickly becoming a hotbed of insurgency over the next year. The situation reached a fevered pitch on March 31, 2004, when four contractors working for Blackwater USA were ambushed on a food supply run. The men were dragged from their vehicles, burned, beaten and hung from a bridge.
“We are from Fallujah,” chanted the crowd. “This is our work.”
“Fallujah is the cemetary of America.”
The entire event was caught on tape and broadcast by media across the globe, and a palpable fury rose in the American populace. A response was necessary, and the Pentagon knew it.
A reaction from the military didn’t take long, with Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt promising forces would “pacify that city” via Operation Vigilant Resolve.
A response came just days later on April 4 in the form of 1,300 Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). The city was under siege by the following morning, while the 1st MEF searched for those responsible for the deaths of the contractors. Clashes with insurgent militia groups of all stripes followed in what is described as some of the most visceral, close-quarters combat in recent history.
The decision to besiege Fallujah represented a turning point for the U.S., which saw the Iraqi insurgency rise like a phoenix from the ashes of a broken country. Uprisings sprung up across the entire country, and Fallujah was the catalyst for concurrent flash points with new adversaries both inside and outside of the city.
One of those outside adversaries was the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a tremendously popular Iraqi political figure whose influence continues to hamper the U.S. today. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army emerged as one of the most prominent insurgency groups in Iraq, killing and injuring hundreds of U.S. personnel during the occupation.
The U.S. was unable to completely secure the city despite routinely besting the insurgents in every encounter. After nearly a month of fighting, 36 U.S. troops lay dead, while 200 insurgents and an estimated 600 civilians were also killed. U.S. forces withdrew from the city unilaterally May 1, 2004, handing power over to the newly formed Fallujah Brigade. Regardless of their losses, the insurgents saw the withdrawal as a “triumph” and took to the streets in celebration.
“For the Marines, it was clear that the battle for Fallujah was not over,” wrote U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gerald De Lira in a 2009 paper for the Marine Corps University. “They knew that the [sic] in order to bring stability to the city, offensive operations would have to resume eventually, and when they did, the insurgents would most likely be re-armed, reinforced, and fighting from more fortified defensive positions.”
U.S. forces returned just months later, after the Fallujah Brigade disintegrated by November 2004. This time though, the Marines were joined by the U.S. Army and some newly formed Iraqi Army units. The mission, known as Operation Al-Fajr, is a revolutionary case study for combined operations, which became a norm of future U.S. warfare. The lessons were learned in blood though, as Al-Fajr was the deadliest battle the U.S. military saw in Iraq.
Though the Marines were already familiar with the close-quarters environment in Fallujah, there were some key differences. First, the mission was patiently planned, employing lessons learned from the first battle. Second, as part of those lessons learned, nearly all of the city’s approximately 250,000 civilians fled, due in no small part to a flyer drop warning of the upcoming attack. This left only the insurgency to deal with. Third, forces loyal to the now infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) group were able to line the city with a patchwork of tunnels, arms caches and improvised explosive devices. Many of these tunnels and caches were built underneath mosques and schools, making them untouchable by U.S. forces.
The assault began November 8, with the U.S. coalition initially seeing significant success, seizing as much as 70 percent of the city by November 10 via cordoning off the area and kicking down every door to flush out the enemy. As is typical with insurgent operations though, the quick seizure of territory did not tell the whole story.
Utilizing their underground infrastructure in conjunction with guerilla tactics, the 3,000 or so insurgents harassed the over 13,000-strong coalition force. The coalition nullified much of the insurgent resistance by November 13. Fighting continued into December, with the city officially being reopened to the public December 23. This time, it was the U.S. and its coalition partners that claimed victory, but not until 51 U.S. personnel were killed, with another 425 wounded. Residents returning to the city found a broken husk of what they once knew. To make matters worse, it was discovered that al-Zarqawi escaped just days into the fighting — he went on to wreak havoc in Iraq for nearly two more years.
Fallujah’s respite from conflict was short-lived, with the city once again embroiled in bloodshed after the so-called “Anbar Awakening” in 2006. Since the end of Operation Al-Fajr, insurgent groups trickled back into Fallujah, requiring another flushing out. This time, however, it was forces from the tribes of the Anbar province that shared the load with the U.S. coalition. The U.S.-led coalition removed AQI’s presence in the province by December 2006 through engaging in various counter-insurgency operations and leveraging the support of Sunni leaders.
The security situation in Fallujah seemed to improve for several years after the Awakening. The Iraqi government established itself as a legitimate presence, and the city slowly rebuilt. What little progress Iraq had seen in Fallujah was quickly wiped away when remnants of AQI reformed into what is now known as ISIS in late 2013. Fallujah was the terrorist group’s first major victory, falling in early January 2014.
Today, Fallujah is home to an entire generation of Iraqis who were born and raised in warfare. Another fight to clear out insurgents is hardly a novel idea for most the city’s residents, but the nature of the force besieging the town is much different from the U.S.-led coalitions of the past. This time, a mostly Shia force, advised by Iran’s top special operations general Qassem Soleimani, is assaulting the city. With minimal U.S. presence on the ground to prevent a sectarian bloodbath, the third battle of Fallujah could be the deadliest yet.
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