Battle for Fallujah: Risks and Rewards

High Stakes Of Taking Fallujah (CSM, pg. 1)

As US Marines mass outside the tough Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, analysts believe the imminent high-profile attack in Iraq carries high political risks. The US says a principal motivation behind retaking Fallujah, considered the center of the insurgency, is to make Iraq safe enough for elections, scheduled for the end of January. Rooting out the foreign insurgents the US believes are using the city as a base to wreak havoc throughout the country is crucial to stabilizing Iraq, US officials say. This, coupled with sending a stern message to militants that they will be dealt with unmercifully, could be a turning point on the road to winning the peace in Iraq.

But these broad goals may prove difficult to achieve, say many observers skeptical that the attack on Fallujah can achieve the type of results that US and Iraqi officials are hoping for. Analysts say that rebels have already fanned out well beyond Fallujah to towns like Ramadi and Samarra, fueling a new wave of violence in areas the US thought it had previously pacified. To this way of thinking there is no decisive battle to be won in Fallujah, and if the assault devastates that city – in the way the Vietnamese city of Hue was by Marines in 1968 – it could end up damaging the long-term interests of the US and Prime Minister Allawi. Elections could be more threatened by violence, not less so, and rebels will simply establish themselves in more broadly dispersed, harder to strike, locales. “The Sunnis see themselves [as] the natural rulers of Iraq and they’re not going to give it up without a fight,” says Patrick Lang, a retired US army colonel and former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He says he worries the US, by painting the coming battle as “a cataclysmic clash between good and evil” will end up leveling the town and not leave the room for political compromise that long-term peace requires.

I see little choice here. By letting Fallujah fester so long as a terrorist haven, we have only prolonged the inevitable while giving the enemy time to rest and refit. “Compromise” is a silly concept here. How does one negotiate with fanatics? Defeating them on the battlefield is simply a prerequisite to achieving a political solution.

Fallujah Presents A Test Of Resolve (WSJ 11/8 p. 4 $)

As U.S. forces appeared to launch an assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, victory will be determined by how well the Iraqis fighting alongside the Americans perform, how Sunni Arabs throughout Iraq react, and whether the new Iraqi government is able to control the city after U.S. troops pull back to their bases. “This is primarily a political battle. Fallujah has little to no military significance. But every day the insurgents hold that city is a political and psychological victory for them,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Gary Anderson, who has traveled to Iraq as a Pentagon consultant.


For many Marines, the Fallujah operation is a “chance to regain honor lost,” said one corps official. In April, the Marines said they were within three days of taking the city when the assault was halted. A public outcry over civilian casualties and the threatened resignation of some members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council prompted the Bush administration to call off the siege. Soon the city fell under the control of radical Sunni clerics, Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters.

U.S. officials believe Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist network, which has taken credit for several major suicide bombings and killings in Iraq, is based in Fallujah, a city of 300,000. U.S. officials hope a sharp strike on the city will injure the terrorist group. “This is a chance to make a real dent in the bad-guy ranks,” a senior Pentagon official said.

The operation’s long-term success will turn on whether Iraqi security forces can stand their ground against insurgents and foreign fighters, U.S. officials say. During the April assault on Fallujah, Iraqi security forces refused to fight alongside U.S. forces. “Even if the Marines take the city, that is not good enough. The Iraqi security forces have to perform in a credible manner. This will be a real test for them,” Col. Anderson said.


Ultimately, the success of the assault on Fallujah will depend on whether Iraqis can hold the city after U.S. forces pull back to their bases. Last week, the Iraqi government said it was setting up a shadow government to step in and run the city after U.S. and Iraqi forces assault it. If the attack succeeds, military officials said Iraqi soldiers and police will be charged with keeping order in the city.

Defense Minister Exhorts Iraqis: ‘Liberate This City’ (WaPo)

Promising promotions to all soldiers who go into battle, the interim Iraqi defense minister, Hazim Shalan, called on his army Sunday to “liberate” Fallujah, a signal that U.S. forces had won the blessing of the interim government to proceed with an operation to retake the insurgent-held city. “This is the first time in the history of Iraq we have seen people being slaughtered like sheep under the umbrella of Islam,” Shalan told Iraqi troops gathered at a base near Fallujah. “Your conscience and families call for you. They call for you to liberate this city.”

Dancing, singing and thrusting their rifles in the air, the Iraqi soldiers seemed to know a rallying cry when they heard one. “We are here to defend our country,” said Ali, 28, a soldier from Nasiriyah who is in the Iraqi army’s 1st Brigade. Like many of the Iraqi soldiers interviewed here, he gave only one name. “We have to get rid of terrorism. All the world looks down on Iraq now because of the terrorists who are not Iraqi. We will make them see Iraqi men ending the terrorism in Iraq.”

Although the battle for Fallujah will be led by U.S. forces, the operation is a test for the new Iraqi army, whose soldiers will be used mostly to secure areas after the Americans move through. U.S. military leaders have touted the presence of the Iraqi forces as a crucial element in the planned assault on the city, which they did not succeed in retaking six months ago after a smaller-scale Marine offensive was called off for political reasons.

“Your warrior brothers in the U.S. Marine Corps are proud to stand next to you,” Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told Iraqi soldiers who surrounded him Sunday during the defense minister’s visit to the camp. “You are the future of your country, and we will be proud to be a part of that future with you,” Sattler said as a crowd of Iraqi troops pressed toward him. “We will take all of our spirit into the fight to give Fallujah back to the Fallujah people.”

This is indeed the biggest question mark for the operation. That the Marines will win is a foregone conclusion, although the costs in friendly and innocent bystander casualties remains to be seen. How many of the unseasoned, amateur Iraqi force will stay and fight is an open question. It will be a major test of how much progress has been made.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I think the biggest issue is how the Iraqi’s will perform, or rather they will show up.

    This morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Anne Garrels reported that Iraqis are deserting in large numbers. An Iraqi batallion attached a marine unit has shrunk from 500 men to 170 in the last two weeks. Worse, over 250 Iraqis deserted over the weekend.

  2. Anjin-San says:

    The soldiers in the Iraq puppet govts. army need a promise of a promotion simply to go into battle. That kind of says it all…