2012-redux US Marine, Battle of Fallujah, 2004
Operation Valiant Resolve
After its impressive initial victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) returned to Iraq in 2004 to replace Army forces in parts of central and western Iraq. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (1/5), was sent to Fallujah to relieve troops of the 82nd Airborne Division.
On 31 March 2004, four U.S. contractors driving through that city were ambushed and killed by Iraqi insurgents; their bodies were mutilated and displayed publicly before frenzied crowds in a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Mogadishu. A forceful response was vital and anticipated widely. Accordingly, 1/5, along with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (2/1), and supporting Army and Air Force special operations units were ordered to enter Fallujah for an operation dubbed Valiant Resolve. Their mission was to find and eliminate—or apprehend—the mujahadeen and any accomplices who had perpetrated the ambush. Resistance was expected. Rather than a stability and security operation, Valiant Resolve was to consist of deliberate assaults on prepared defenses.
When the attack commenced 5 April 2004, lead Marine elements were engaged quickly by well-armed and organized enemy units effectively using hit-and-run urban warfare. Despite heavy resistance, the Marines limited their firepower, relying mostly on rifles, machine guns, and snipers. They restricted air support to Cobra attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships.
On a few occasions—only after considerable deliberation—fixed-wing aircraft dropped guided bombs on insurgent targets, including a mosque used as a center of resistance.
In general, Marine units fought with impressive skill and with exceptional care for civilian lives and property. This solicitude, however, quickly limited the scope of the advance to outlying areas of the city. They did not attempt to penetrate the heart of the city, apparently because U.S. casualties would have been excessive, as would casualties among the inhabitants. The Marines did not want to “rubble the city.”
On 1 May 2004, Iraqi insurgents took to the streets of Fallujah to declare victory over the Marines. “We won,” an Iraqi insurgent told a reporter, explaining they had succeeded by keeping U.S. forces from taking the city. Newspaper and televised reports showed Muslim gunmen celebrating their “triumph” with weapons, flags, and victory signs. U.S. authorities explained that a new Iraqi Fallujah Brigade would assume security duties in the city and ultimately accomplish the mission.
Between April and November 2004, both sides busily prepared for a rematch. Iraqi insurgents and foreign mujahadeen dug tunnels, emplaced mines and booby-traps, and improved their About defenses. Meanwhile, most of Fallujah’s civilian population fled the city, which greatly reduced the potential for noncombatant casualties. The emptying city invited greater applications of air power. U.S. warplanes and artillery launched highly selective attacks, weakening insurgent defenses, hitting leadership targets, and laying the groundwork for a renewed assault.
2,000 Iraqi troops bolstered the assault force, which was supported by aircraft and several Marine and Army artillery battalions. The combined Marine-Army-Iraqi force for Operation al-Fajr was many times larger than the force employed in April 2004.
With Fallujah cordoned by the remaining troops, the assault force struck from the north on 8 November 2004, quickly breaching insurgent defenses and reaching the heart of the city. Although fighting was at times severe, by 12 November, U.S.-Iraqi forces controlled 80% of the city.
Resistance stiffened in southern Fallujah as the assault force faced sometimes uniformed opponents who fought with increased professionalism and discipline. “When we found those boys in that bunker with their equipment, it became a whole new ballgame” said one soldier. He continued, “The way these guys fight is different than the insurgents.” Nonetheless, by 20 November, the attackers had routed the remaining insurgents and taken the city.
© 2004 U.S. Naval Institute. All rights reserved.