On 31 March 2004 a Blackwater convoy came under fire by Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. Four contractors were killed in the ambush. The contractors were pulled from their vehicle, burned, and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Images of these dead contractors were posted by new agencies around the world, sparking an outcry in the United States for a response. The result led the US military to announce a counter-insurgency campaign in Fallujah. Within days after the attack US military forces descended on the city in Operation Vigilant Resolve.
The first battle of Fallujah was launched on 4 April 2004. American forces from the 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), 10th Mountain Division, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) assaulted the city. Fighting was intense as US forces cleared the expansive urban city. In an attempt to clear insurgent-held locations, US forces called in airstrikes from fix-winged aircraft hanging over the city. There was also the use of AC-130 gunships that targeted insurgent strongholds. Despite the overwhelming firepower, American forces struggled to maintain control over the city and were forced to withdraw on 1 May 2004. The first battle saw 27 Americans killed in action, and an estimated 228 insurgents killed, and 600 civilians lost.
During the withdrawal from Fallujah, the US organized a local militia, the Fallujah Brigade to hold the city. The decision to use amateur forces proved disastrous. Within months, the city returned to an insurgent stronghold in Al Anbar province. The second battle of Fallujah, Operation Phantom Fury was launched on 7 November 2004. The second battle was largely fought by US Marine and Iraqi army forces, with limited army forces (2nd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division, and 1st Squadron 124th Cavalry, Texas National Guard) and British support. Operation Phantom Fury became the bloodiest battle during the entirety of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Like the previous battle, Operation Phantom Fury was a brutal urban combat campaign. Marines and Iraqi forces had to fight, hold, and control all of the urban terrain to ensure the insurgents were ousted and defeated. Of the 50,000 buildings in the city, nearly 10,000 were destroyed in the fighting. The fighting was likened to the Battle of Hue City during the Vietnam War, where American forces defended the city from a massive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assault. After a month of heavy fighting, US forces had regained control over most of the city. The victory was not without cost. The US lost 54 soldiers and Marines in the fighting, with an additional 425 wounded. They killed and captured over 3,000 insurgents, over 80 percent of the enemy fighting force in the city. After the second battle of Fallujah, the US kept American forces in the city to avoid the catastrophe that had occurred in the aftermath of the first battle.
Look for more information regarding the first and second battles of Fallujah in the future Modern War issue #23 with the article “Fallujah: Urban Assault in Iraq 2004” and join the conversation on Facebook!