IRAQ: The Battle for Falluja

February 16, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Iraq

This publication is now archived.

What will define victory in the battle for Falluja?

The major military offensive under way in Falluja will weaken the Iraqi insurgency by destroying one of its main logistical hubs, killing and scattering insurgents, and bolstering the authority of Iraq’s government, U.S. military officials say. But some outside experts say the degree of damage it will inflict on the militants is difficult to measure. Many insurgents have fled the city and are expected to regroup elsewhere. And Falluja’s civilians may be impressed by the show of force backing the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi--or they may sympathize with the insurgents. "We are walking a fine line," says Walter P. Lang, former head of Middle East analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, referring to the U.S. approach in Falluja. "Our belief is that if we can show sufficient strength without causing too much damage, we can shift the balance of power to the Iraqi government’s side."

What are the Falluja battle’s objectives?

U.S. commanders assumed that disrupting operations and retaking the city from the rebels and terrorists would hurt the insurgency, regardless of whether all the fighters were killed or captured. The U.S. military also wanted to establish the presence of the Iraqi government in the city and ensure its residents could vote in the upcoming elections in January. "Disrupting what has been a major safe haven for former regime elements and foreign fighters, in particular Zarqawi and his folks, will be a significant event," Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard B. Myers told reporters November 9. He was referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist behind many beheadings, kidnappings, car bombs, and other brutal attacks in Iraq.

Counterinsurgency experts also point to several other goals, many of them psychological:

  • To show that the U.S. military is committed to securing the entire country for the Allawi government.
  • To demonstrate that the Iraqi security forces are becoming more effective.
  • To reverse the "loss of face" suffered by the United States when it backed off from a major military offensive in Falluja in April.
  • To begin to convince "fence-sitters"--Iraqis whose allegiance wavers between the insurgents and the Allawi government--that momentum is on Allawi’s side and he is going to win this fight. "A lot of research shows that when people in an insurgency decide which side to support, they choose the one they think is going to win," says Steven Metz, chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

How many troops are fighting in Falluja?

U.S. military planners say between 10,000 and 15,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers and some 2,000 Iraqis are participating in the assault, which began on November 8. It is the largest single military operation in many months, commanders say. There are some 2,000-3,000 insurgents in Falluja, Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, said in a November 9 news conference. By November 12, the U.S. military said 600 militants had been killed, along with at least 22 U.S. troops and five members of the Iraqi security forces. More than 200 wounded U.S. fighters have been airlifted to Germany for medical treatment. Some 80 percent of the city was under the control of U.S. and Iraqi troops, the military said.

Has the fighting been as intense as expected?

While there has been heavy fighting in some parts of the city, other sections have fallen with light resistance. General Metz told reporters that the insurgents were showing little coherence since the initial U.S.-led assault, and U.S. objectives were being met on or ahead of schedule. Some reports indicated that the fighting intensified, however, as U.S. forces trapped insurgents between advancing American lines and the cordon around the outer edge of the city. "Our goal right now--we feel we’ve broken their back and their spirit--is to keep the heat on them," U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Sattler told reporters November 12 at a briefing at Camp Falluja, just outside the city.

What explains the weaker-than-expected resistance in some areas?

One major reason, Metz said, may be that some of the rebel leaders appear to have fled before the fighting started. Among the leaders Metz suspects has escaped is the terrorist mastermind Zarqawi. "It is fair to assume he has left," he said.

What permitted insurgents to flee?

U.S. forces did not establish a tight cordon around the city until November 7, just before the start of the major offensive, military commanders said. In addition, Falluja residents had plenty of warning before the attack. Some 50 percent to 90 percent of the civilians in the city of some 200,000 appear to have fled, the commanders said. Some insurgents probably slipped out undetected in the wave of civilian refugees. The New York Times quoted one insurgent November 10 who said that some 50 percent of the militants in Falluja had stayed to defend the city. The insurgents who remained were "rear-guards, to put on a show of force," Lang says. "They’ve left some behind who are interested in being martyred," says Steven Metz.

Why didn’t the U.S. military close off the city sooner?

U.S. and Iraqi commanders faced a difficult choice. If they sealed the city well before the assault, they risked killing and wounding thousands of civilians in the battle against the insurgents. If they permitted the city to clear out before U.S. forces entered, some insurgents would inevitably escape. Because wide-scale civilian casualties could stoke greater anti-government anger, Allawi and U.S. commanders chose to keep the roads out of Falluja open until the last moment.

Where did the insurgents flee to?

Since the start of the Falluja offensive, insurgents have staged attacks in a string of cites, including Baghdad Tikrit, Kirkuk, Hawija, Samarra, Ramadi, and the northern city of Mosul. Some of these attacks may be coordinated by the insurgents leaders who fled Falluja, some experts say. At least 14 Americans have been killed in insurgent strikes outside Falluja since the offensive started, the Associated Press reported November 10. Iraqis are also under fire; a car bomb ripped through a crowded Baghdad commercial street, killing 17 people November 11. These attacks seem designed to show that the insurgency is thriving, despite the loss of one of its safe havens, experts say.

Will U.S. forces will have to conduct more major battles against the insurgents?

Almost certainly, experts say. A key characteristic of the Iraqi insurgency is its decentralized, networked nature--the Sunni insurgency alone may be comprised of some 35-50 Sunni groups with various levels of coordination, Lang says. As a result, there will be more anti-insurgency battles. Falluja isn’t the "be all and end all of battles," says Major Jason Amerine, an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Instead, he said, Falluja should be thought of as "a cancerous tumor we had to remove, but there are still more tumorous cells out there that have to be destroyed."

What is the political reaction to the offensive?

The initial reaction of leading Sunni groups--Falluja is a predominately Sunni city--has been harshly critical. The Muslim Scholars’ Board, an organization of strongly anti-occupation clergy that is an influential voice in Sunni politics, announced that it intends to boycott the January elections. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which was the main Sunni party in the Allawi government, announced it would withdraw from that coalition. "We are protesting the attack on Falluja and the injustice that is inflicted on the innocent people of the city," said party head Mohsen Abdel Hamid. However, the lone IIP minister in the interim government, Industry Minister Hakim al-Hasni, opted to stay in his post, Knight-Ridder Newspapers reported. As a result, he was expelled from the IIP.

What has the cost been in lives and property to the people of Falluja?

Reports of civilian casualties are sketchy. The fighting has destroyed countless buildings, and aid workers say hundreds of families remain trapped in the city. U.S. soldiers were allowing women, children, and elderly to leave Falluja through the security cordon, but--to prevent insurgents from leaving--men between 15 and 55 were turned back. Water and electricity have been cut off since November 7. The International Committee for the Red Cross said November 12 that thousands of elderly and women and children have had no food or water for days. "The Red Cross is very worried. We urge all combatants to guarantee passage to those who need medical care, regardless of whether they are friends or enemies," spokesman Ahmad al-Raoui said. U.S. officials said that food and medicine were being delivered to some areas of the city where the fighting has quieted, and commanders said they were working to minimize civilian losses.

What will happen after Falluja is taken?

As soon as the fighting stops, the Iraqi government plans to arrive with medical relief, food, and reconstruction aid, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. In addition, U.S. and Iraqi troops will maintain a robust security presence for an unknown period of time to prevent insurgents from flooding back, Steven Metz says.

Then U.S. forces will consider the necessity of conducting a Falluja-style operation in Ramadi or another city. Lang predicts that it will take offensive operations in "four or five" cities before the Sunni elites that support the insurgents get the message that they are better off siding with the interim Iraqi government. "This will not be the last use of force in Iraq to rid Iraq of the former regime elements and the foreign fighters who do not want Iraq to be successful," General Myers said on November 9. "So there will be other opportunities, maybe not as dramatic and as big as Falluja, but there will be other opportunities."

More on:

Iraq

Up
Close

Explore More on CFR

Syria

Syria is likely to remain a broken country for years to come. The latest strikes did not change that reality.

Cuba

Miguel Diaz-Canel, set to replace Raul Castro as president of Cuba after sixty years of Castro rule, will be faced with the challenges of implementing economic reform and sidestepping regional isolation.

United Kingdom

With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, London hopes its Commonwealth partners can help boost trade, but critics say the group is outmoded and ineffective.