MARINES Magazine is proud to acknowledge the passing of five years since the Battle of Fallujah, arguably the fiercest combat Marines have seen since the Vietnam War. As time passes, more and more Marines only read or hear about this event as history. We are fortunate enough to still have active duty Marines who served in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2004, and were able to share what they have to say about those fateful days.
As Marines, we take pride in knowing our history and the tales of the devil dogs who came before us. Mention Tripoli, Iwo Jima, or Chosin, to name a few, and the leathernecks in the room will be talking for hours about the events that helped shape the Corps. Look to more modern times, however, and the list of famous battles becomes much shorter. In two wars defined by improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and an enemy that operates in small, isolated groups, the major assaults that occurred in places like Belleau Wood have all but disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The notable exception was in the city of Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004. Before the war, the city of 425,000 was home to both Iraqi Army units and militia of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party. Coalition forces didn’t cause any damage to the city during the initial invasion in 2003, but the lack of any policing force led to widespread looting, including weapons caches left behind by the previous military forces. Occasional protests and riots marked the first year of the United States occupation in the city.
In early March 2004, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division transferred authority of Al Anbar province to I Marine Expeditionary Force. The Marines soon had their hands full when insurgents in Fallujah ambushed a convoy later that month, capturing four American contractors employed by Blackwater USA. The captives were beaten, set on fire, and then hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. In response, Marines surrounded the city and tried to find the responsible insurgents, backing off at the request of the provisional government. A cease fire was declared in May, and the Marines stayed out of the city for the next six months.
The break in fighting gave insurgents in Fallujah a chance to build up. Coalition patrols that came close to the perimeter of the city were met with enemy fire. In early November, the Iraq interim government declared a state of emergency, and Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, agreed that something needed to be done to “clean Fallujah from the terrorists.” Operation Phantom Fury began Nov. 8, 2004, with American, Iraqi, and British forces entering the city. Regimental Combat Team 1 and Regimental Combat Team 7, the Marine units involved in the assault, entered from the north and proceeded to fight through the streets. By Nov. 16, most of the major resistance was suppressed, but Marines continued to find isolated cells until Dec. 23.
The Battle of Fallujah was a victory for the coalition, but it came at a heavy price. Altogether, 95 Americans lost
their lives, and 560 were wounded. About 1,350 insurgents lost their lives
in the city, and coalition forces captured an additional 1,500 men.
Fallujah served as a decisive strike against the Iraqi insurgency, but also showcased the Marine core values of honor, courage, and commitment. At least eight Navy Crosses were awarded for the battle, more than any other single action in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of the recipients, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, was considered for the Medal of Honor. A picture of another recipient, 1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal, being carried out of a house has become one of the most iconic pictures of the current wars.
Operation Phantom Fury also marked a change in strategy for the American military. One of the biggest issues the U.S. was facing in Iraq was the number of civilian casualties. In an effort to limit the number of accidental deaths, the Iraqi and American governments made several announcements about the attacks before coalition forces entered the city. The element of surprise was lost, but thousands of Fallujah’s residents left the city to avoid being caught in the crossfire, exactly what the coalition hoped for. Not only did this limit the number of civilian casualties, it allowed the Marines to concentrate on clearing rooms and fighting insurgents. This approach carried over into later assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan to great effect.
Fallujah eventually returned to Iraqi control in September 2008 when the United States transferred authority of Al Anbar province to the Iraqi government. Today, the city is still rebuilding. The number of people living in the city is still considerably less than before the attacks. The positive mindset of the population is far more promising. Opposition to the “American occupation” gave way to a strong dislike of Al-Qaida tactics and policies, enough that several leaders in Fallujah reached out to the coalition to form an alliance. This decision effectively ended the insurgency, and has put the city’s worst days behind it.
// By Cpl. Colby W. Brown
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