Iraq Reconstruction Update #5: Retaking Fallujah

by Michael Donovan, Ph.D.

The insurgency in Iraq has grown in size and effectiveness in the months since a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country. By the summer of 2004, Pentagon officials were revising their initial estimates of the size of the insurgency by a factor of four. Baghdad and Mosul remained open cities to insurgents, and coalition casualty figures were rising steadily. Even as coalition authorities and the Iraqi interim government began to consider preparations for elections to be held in 2005, 20-30 towns in northeastern Iraq remained outside of coalition control. In an effort to pacify these predominantly Sunni areas, coalition officials devised a plan to retake key towns, and, it was hoped, strike at the heart of the insurgency.[1] As a centerpiece to this plan, on Nov. 8, 2004, U.S. Marine and Army units, complemented by some Iraqi troops, embarked on Operation Phantom Fury, the retaking of the town of Fallujah.

Supporters insist that Fallujah needed to be retaken to pacify central Iraq in anticipation of elections early next year. But the endeavor has generated controversy among critics inside and outside Iraq. They charge that Operation Phantom Fury played into the hands of insurgents, amounting to a tactical success but a strategic defeat. Ugly urban combat, they fear, would further alienate the population of al Anbar province, the epicenter of the Sunni insurgency. Sunni willingness to participation in the political process would wane, calling into question the legitimacy of future elections, and support for the insurgency would increase. All sides agree the consequences of Operation Phantom Fury are likely to impact efforts to foster stability in Iraq in important ways.

Fallujah remained outside coalition or Iraqi government control since April 2004, when the slaying of four U.S. contractors was followed by a general uprising. During that time, a vague conglomerate of Iraqi insurgents, foreign jihadists and tribal nationalists consolidated their control in the city. Press reports and sources inside the U.S. military speculated that anywhere from 3,000-6,000 insurgents took refuge in the city prior to the invasion in November. Among these was reported to be the Jordanian Jihadist Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who is said to have used Fallujah as a base for launching attacks against coalition troops and friendly Iraqi forces.

In strict military terms, the operation to regain control of Fallujah was a success. The city was retaken, though sporadic violence continued in its environs for several days. The military estimates it killed 1,600 insurgents, though these numbers have yet to be independently verified. Coalition casualties stand at about 50 in Fallujah, though more than 90 Americans died across Iraq, making November 2004 the second deadliest month in occupation history. Hundreds more were wounded The U.S. military reported the confiscation of large numbers of small arms and light weapons, as well as some larger equipment.

In the broader context, however, it is not likely that the retaking of Fallujah will “break the back” of the insurgency as one military official suggested. Almost a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq, the anti-coalition insurgency appears to be larger, better organized, and more effective than ever. Not long after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, military officials estimated that perhaps 5,000 fighters, including former regime loyalists, Arab nationalists and foreign jihadists were actively fighting the coalition. More recently, military officials have admitted that the number of insurgents is probably four times that amount, numbering around 20,000.[2] Thus, even if 1,600 insurgents were killed in the Fallujah, this amounts to only a small fraction of anti-coalition fighters. Similar trends are also not encouraging. Insurgent attacks have risen from around 500 per month at the start of the year to 2,400 per month.[3]

The invasion of Fallujah was well publicized in advance by coalition authorities who hoped to clear the city of many of its noncombatants. However, civilians were apparently not the only ones to evacuate the city prior to its retaking. Despite a “dynamic cordon” undertaken by the Marine Corps, Pentagon officials believe that Abu Musab al Zarqawi and any number of his associates may have abandoned the city before the invasion began.

The escape of some of these militants may account for a simultaneous upsurge in violence in cities throughout northwest Iraq after the assault on Fallujah began, as the insurgency reasserted itself elsewhere. Military officials reported 130 attacks on the same day the invasion began, significantly above the summer daily average of 80.[4] On Nov. 12, insurgents rampaged through Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city and a former model of stability, attacking police stations and the provincial headquarters. An estimated 3,200 of the cities 4,000 police officers reportedly abandoned their posts as the city fell into chaos.[5] The fighting, and a lack of confidence in the local police, prompted the provincial governor to request assistance from Kurdish peshmerga militia. Some U.S. units fighting in Fallujah also had to be deployed back to Mosul.

This surge in insurgent activity raises broader questions about the military approach to an insurgency that increasingly acquires the characteristics of oil on water; coalition forces in too few numbers have secured one city or hot spot only to lose control of another. There are few cities in Iraq that the U.S. military could not take in a matter of days. But securing these cities in any permanent way may simply be beyond overstretched coalition resources. In recent months, Fallujah, Samarra Ramadi, and other hot spots have drifted in and out of coalition control. Samarra, which was retaken by coalition forces in October 2004, was recently the scene of coordinated attacks which claimed 34 Iraqi police officers.

Coalition forces struggled to include some 2,000 Iraqi security troops in the operations to retake Fallujah, with mixed result. High rates of desertion reportedly plagued Iraqi units rallying outside the city prior to the start of the operations. One Iraqi commando unit, Unit 36, apparently performed well. But its effectiveness is belied by the fact that that it is made up largely of Iraqi Kurds and Shia who are deemed to be more reliable in support of combat operations than their Sunni counterparts. Use of such units cultivates the illusion that Iraqi troops are playing a more meaningful role in counterinsurgency operations and runs the risk of institutionalizing sectarian division within the security forces. These issues aside, the coalition’s Iraqi allies may have played a valuable role in occupying mosques and other religious sites where western, non-Muslim troops would further arouse the sensitivities of a very traditional population.

It is doubtful that Iraqi troops will assume a more substantial role in counterinsurgency operations in the near future. Currently, eight brigades of Iraqi troops have been trained, and the reliability of these troops remains an open question. Even if these units are used to backfill areas secured by coalition forces, as is the case now in Samarra and Fallujah, they will quickly be run out of troops. And there are still the security requirements of the approaching elections to attend to. According to reasoned estimates, it will take at least five years to train and field a reliable, professional security apparatus, suggesting that coalition forces will have to shoulder the burden of the counterinsurgency effort for the foreseeable future.[6]

If the trends in the security environment appear disconcerting, the political outlook is only slightly less so. It is not clear how coalition counterinsurgency efforts will impact elections in the new year. It is hoped that elections will bring all of Iraq’s various parties and groups under one broad political umbrella. But success depends upon the participation of a broad cross section of Iraqi society, and it is unclear whether this will happen.

Even before the retaking of Fallujah, there were serious concerns about whether or not a significant proportion of the Sunni population in Iraq would participate. Sunni groups have not organized politically on the same level as their Shia or Kurdish counterparts, perhaps fearing the election would simply favor the Shia majority. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a coalition of Mosques considered influential in the Sunni community, encouraged a boycott of the elections, but this generally pro-insurgent group was not likely to have supported them in any event. After the assault on Fallujah, however, 14 other groups joined with the association to form the Iraqi Founding National Congress, an umbrella organization of groups refusing to take part in the planned elections.[7] The Iraqi Islamic Party, which had participated in the interim governing coalition, also withdrew its support for elections. Still others, including the two main Kurdish parties, have called for a delay in elections, though this has been rejected publicly by Iraqi and American officials.

Suggestions that the Sunni failure to contest the elections would be a mistake the Sunnis themselves would have to come to terms with miss the point. The elections in January are meant to provide a political solution to the problem of the insurgency, establishing a place for all parties at the table and sapping support from the violent opponents of a new Iraq. An electoral outcome that does not reflect 20 percent of the Iraqi population will reinforce the Sunni sense of marginalization, call into question the legitimacy of any future government, and perpetuate the violence. Indeed, sectarian violence could be the most prominent outcome of the contest. According to media reports, a National Intelligence Estimate sent to the White House in August forecasted possibilities ranging from tenuous stability at best, to civil war at worst.[8]

Of course, even if all parties take part, holding an election in a war zone will be a tall order. Security will be a nightmare. American commanders estimate that only about 145,000 Iraqi security personnel will be ready by Jan. 30, 2005, far short of the 270,000 that Iraqi officials say is required.[9] Exactly how Iraq’s 9,000 polling places will be made safe when security personnel do not appear capable of securing many of the country’s police stations remains to be seen. If Fallujah’s erstwhile insurgents escaped the city to fight another day, they may get their chance on election day.

[1] “Elections in Iraq,” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 10, Issue 9, November 2004.

[2] Bryan Bender, “U.S. Casualty Rate High Since Handover,” Boston Globe, July 19, 2004.

[3] See “Iraq Index,” The Brooking Institution,, update Dec. 6, 2004.

[4] Ed Wong and Eric Schmitt, “Rebel Fighter Who Fled Attack May Now Be Active Elsewhere,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 2004.

[5] Karl Vick, “Trouble Spots Dot Iraqi Landscape,” Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2004.

[6] Toby Dodge, “A Sovereign Iraq,” Survival, vol. 46, no. 3, Autumn 2004, p. 54.

[7] “Elections in Iraq,” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 10, Issue 9, November 2004.

[8] “Douglas Hehl, “2 CIA Reports Offer Warnings On Iraq’s Path,” New York Times, Dec. 7, 2004.

[9] Edward Wong and Eric Schmitt, “Iraq Falls Short on Vote Security,” New York Times, Nov. 23, 2004.