Sunday, November 20, 2005


One year ago, on November 20, 2005, Operation Phantom Fury(or Dawn) to clear the city of Fallujah from terrorists, was concluded.

In May of that year there had been an earlier attempt to flush them out, but the (very modest) Marine units involved then were prematurely ordered to a stop on the insistence of high-ranking Iraqi GC officials, a.o. al-Jaafari, so as not to stir up the mood of Iraqs Sunni population. It was a bad move, as soon became apparent. The so-called "Fallujah Brigade", initially a 1,600 strong force commanded by Muhammed Latif, a former general of Saddam Hussein’s Army, and intended to restore order in the restive city, was quickly joined by the very insurgents the 1st Marine division had been fighting. By June it was apparent that the brigade was part of the problem rather than of the solution, to put it mildly, and so by August it was disbanded.

The city then sunk further and further into chaos and became a hotbed for insurgents and al-Zarqawi linked terrorist groups, prompting precision airstrikes which gradually turned Fallujah into a combat zone and ultimately forced at least 90% of the citizens out.

By October it was obvious that a Fallujah left undisturbed would prove a possibly fatal impediment to the upcoming January elections. So an operation to clear the city once and for all was scheduled, its codename being originally Phantom Fury, later changed to al-Fajr (Dawn) on the request of Iraqi generals.

Aerial view on Day 1, from the westGiven the size of Fallujah, essentially a 3km wide on 3.5km long rectangle, with an estimated prewar population of 250,000, the forces assembled to take it seemed oddly insufficient, give and take 10,000 USMC and Army troops, plus another 2,000 Iraqi security forces. Anyone familiar with World War 2 literature will recall that if the battles fought in cities like Stalingrad, Berlin, Arnhem, Warsaw etc. proved one thing, it’s that in street fighting the attacking force can litterally bleed white even when opposed by a numerically far weaker adversary. In Stalingrad during the fall of 1942, the Germans deployed almost an entire 250,000-strong army, the 6th under Von Paulus, against the Russian 62nd Army under Chujkow, which numbered at some point not more combat troops than a weak division (10,000). Yet it took them two months (and tens of thousands of casualties) to occupy 9/10 of the city. In Arnhem in September 1944, the fresh British 1st Airborne division, 10,000 strong, melted away in the space of a week against a veritable hodgepodge of ad hoc German units still shattered by the Normandy campaign. It never saw combat as a unit anymore for the duration of the war.

To military historians Fallujah November 2004 may therefore be treated not as a typical example of urban warfare but rather as the exception which proves the rule. The roughly 80 US and Iraqi soldiers which gave their lives for an operation which very likely saved Iraq’s first true parliamentary elections are bad enough – but the focus of future investigations will rather be on why there were not 800 – or 8,000 for that matter. For opposing the US and Iraqi troops was a determined force of between 2,000 and 3,000 insurgents, and for those who think that the Marines had a distinct numerical advantage, see the number of 12,000 US/Iraqi troops mentioned above, it may come as a surprise that as for the number of fighting men involved the discrepancy was far less obvious. The best way to explain this is to keep a knife in mind: the cutting edge itself represents only a tiny fraction of the knife’s mass, while it is the blade which provides the main weight. In the same manner the guys seeing the "white in the enemy’s eyes" are always far outnumbered by the ones in the rear providing supplies, medical services, artillery fire, communications, transport and what not. Thus it was that in fact only 6 US combat battalions, numbering together perhaps 4,200 troops, took on Fallujah’s main defenses in a broad sweep from north to south (the Iraqi units were engaged mostly to the west of the city, with a noted commando action to take control of the city’s hospital). These six battalions, arranged to the north of the city, were, from west to east:

a.) the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Regiment (3/1) of the 1st Marine Division (the "Guadalcanal" division)
b.) the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Regiment (3/5) of the 1st Marine Division
c.) the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7) of the 1st Cavalry Division
d.) the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment (1/8) of the 2nd Marine Division (the "Tarawa" division)
e.) the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (1/3) of the 3rd Marine Division
f.) the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment (2/2)of the 1st Infantry Division ("The Big Red One")

Order of Attack, 7 November 2004Phantom Fury/al-Fajr started with a night attack on November 7 at 7pm local time, with Iraqi commandos seezing the main hospital in the west, on a peninsula in the Euphrates, and Marines taking the two nearby key bridges across the river. The aim was to prevent fleeing insurgents from turning the hospital into a stronghold and/or using the bridges as an escape route.

On November 8 the main assault started, but not before massive aerial and artillery bombardment lasting 12 hours had saturated the zone of attack. It was again 7pm in the evening before the attack got under way, with 3/5 in the west immediately seizing a huge apartment block, giving their machinegun teams and artillery observers an excellent overview of the battle area. The most significant gain in the centre was the railway station, which was seized by 2/7.

Order of Attack, 7 November 2004November 9 saw 3/1, 3/5 and 2/7 joining forces to focus on conquering the Jolan District in the northwest (on the map this effort is dubbed "The Wedge" - it seems in Jolan the toughest resistance was met), 1/8, 1/3 advancing towards the center and 2/2 consolidating its hold over the Askari District in the northeast. When you look at the map to the right, basically one sees the 3-battalion "Wedge" group focussing southwest and 2/2 focussing, with a bit of imagination, to the southeast. It appears that in doing so, the two Marine battalions and the cavalry battalion in the west, and the Big Red One battalion in the east, wanted to seize both ends of Highway 10 on the outskirts of the city. Highway 10, the dotted yellow line on the photo, is the main traffic artery of Fallujah, running from a huge traffic exchanger in the east to a Euphrates bridge in the west. Possession of both ends of Highway 10 gives one virtual control over who enters and leaves the city.

On November 10, 2/2 indeed secured the eastern approaches to the huge clover leaf traffic exchanger, thus allowing supplies coming from the Baghdad direction to flow in. This day was to prove the toughest day of the fighting yet, with key battles erupting around some mosques which were used as enemy strongholds, ammo dumps and IED factories. Among the captured mosques were Al Tawfiq, Hydra and Muhammadia, the latter one being the site of one of the largest battles of the assault, and actually taken by Iraqi Security Forces. By the end of the day, US and Iraqi forces controlled 70pct. Of the city. Since the lead elements of the six battalions had by then crossed Highway 10, the stage was set for taking the southern half of the city, even as mopping up operations behind them were still taking place.

On November 11, US forces turned control of the Jolan district over to the Iraqi Army. By evening, the northern half of Fallujah was generally under US/Iraqi control. Unfortunately and inevitably, a price was paid for the success, with American troops losing 18 KIA and Iraqi troops reportedly 4. There were at least 164 wounded. Remember them all. Unknown to the general public though, was that Phantom Fury/Dawn thus far had proven to be an astonishing feat of arms,with half of a large city subdued in the space of a mere four days. One could argue that US troops enjoyed the advantage of tanks and artillery, and so it was. But the same could be said of the Germans in the Stalingrad operation, where they regularly conducted 1,000 sorties a day (on one day even 2,000), often with Stuka divebombers, the then-equivalent of A-10s performing precision strikes. All across the world, people gazed at TV screens and thought not much of it. In Fallujah, history had been written and rags like The Guardian and The Independent utterly and shamefully ridiculed.

(to be continued)


NB: credits to most of the info and all of the pictures go to