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A Tale of Two Cities: Lessons learned and Conclusions from Iraq

AOAV’s report A Tale of Two Cities explores the use of explosive weapons by UK and US forces in Basra and Fallujah respectively, 2003-04. It has been divided into chapters in this series. This chapter focuses on what lessons have and should be learned from these operations over a decade ago.

To read the full report see here.

The aftermath and lessons learned

Heavy-handed tactics employed by US forces in Fallujah were heavily criticised during the UK Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war. As Sir David Richmond stated: “What the Americans were doing in Fallujah which was being broadcast all over the Arab media was causing serious problems all round, certainly the Sunni part of Iraq but also I think the Shia part of Iraq.” To some, the conduct of US forces reinforced the idea America was out to win a war, while Britain was there to fight in a counterinsurgency operation.

The destruction of that city [Fallujah] in the process is redolent of an attitude during the Vietnam War. To paraphrase an officer from that time, ‘we had to destroy the city in order to save it.” Dr Rod Thornton, counterinsurgency expert, House of Commons testimony

It was also thought by some, including then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, that the heavy US response in Fallujah in 2004 had a negative impact on other cities in Iraq, stirring hostility towards troops based there. Iraq saw a surge in violence across the whole country as the US began its first offensive in Fallujah. April 2004 was at that point the deadliest month for civilians since Saddam Hussein was ousted a year earlier.

By contrast, UK forces likely reduced the risk of civilian casualties significantly by not attacking populated areas of Basra with heavy explosive weapons. UK security personnel extended this approach to law enforcement in the years following, where they sought to adopt a firm but friendly persona when patrolling the streets of the city (e.g. removing helmets and replacing them with berets). This approach drew upon experience in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.


Whether the US military accepted the criticism from allies is difficult to assess, although operations carried out by the British forces attracted praise from their American counterparts. According to the New York Times, a Pentagon official acknowledged that a battle plan for Baghdad “was informed at the last minute” when U.S. field commanders consulted British officers about their success in Basra.

Furthermore, US military manuals began to explicitly acknowledge how collateral damage could negatively impact operations. A counterinsurgency manual released in December 2006 indicated how personnel “…should calculate carefully the type and amount of force to be applied and who wields it for any operation. An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.”

In 2012, the US military released the 2012 Civilian Casualty Mitigation manual.  Perhaps the first manual of its kind in directly addressing how RoE relate to casualty mitigation, it states how civilian casualties can cause “ill will” in the host nation, as well as political pressure on the military that “can limit freedom of action of military forces. It suggests that restrictive rules of engagement can help reduce casualties, and adds that even though RoE may authorise force, it is not necessary in every case.

The manual also presents a six-step mitigation cycle to reduce casualties: prepare, plan, employ, assess, respond, and learn.In the first stage, the manual suggests that casualty mitigation should be incorporated into military exercises, and that commanders should avoid “focusing exclusively on fighting against a hostile enemy, as this could reinforce a “shoot first” mentality.” In the planning stage, the military must have an “accurate picture of the operational environment, including civilian concentrations,” and as for employment, it suggests that indirect fire and air strikes should be restricted or reserved for a high-level approval authority. Troops should also conduct battle damage assessments, and respond to casualty incidents by treating the wounded or offering compensation for losses. The last step recommends that lessons learned on casualty mitigation can be incorporated into military exercises, thus completing the cycle.


As for the RoE for the UK, there is an indication that they were changed in 2004, a year after the Battle of Basra. In 2006, a memorandum from the Ministry of Defence submitted to parliament stated that the RoE were “updated in June 2004 and took full account of lessons learned in all recent operations. UK ROE doctrine is therefore up to date and has been operationally tested in recent war and high tempo peacekeeping operations.” However it is hard to measure and identify such changes as the relevant information remains classified.

One clear and striking change to UK military practice since 2003-4 that the US has not followed is the decision to sign up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Act of 2010 makes cluster bombs the highest category of prohibited exports, and illegal under any circumstances for UK forces to ever in the future.

As far as drawing broader lessons goes, as stated earlier, secrecy surrounds the UK rules of engagement, and Freedom of Information requests submitted by AOAV have thus far yielded little further information.


Operations in Iraq, either implicitly or explicitly, were fought with the justification of ultimately improving the protection of civilians. Meanwhile, and recognising that all military engagements are inevitably politicised and subjected to public scrutiny, this was arguably the first ‘Youtube’ conflict ever fought. The level of public pressure, heightened by a rolling 24-hour media scrutiny, was particularly high throughout the conflict in Iraq.

This had a significant bearing on how militaries conducted themselves as regards the protection of their own troops, and how they were seen to be protecting civilians from actions of the coalition forces.

Rules of engagement (RoE) primarily serve the purpose of attempting to strike a balance between the protection of troops with the protection of civilians. The central tenets of international humanitarian law (IHL), and its protection of civilians, were pivotal in the drafting and application of RoE of both states considered in this report. Both US and UK forces emphasised through their RoE that avoiding civilian casualties or damage to civilian structures was a high priority.

While involving clearly differing contexts, operations in Basra and Fallujah both presented the US and UK with the same dilemma: whether or not to deploy explosive weapons against an opposition choosing to operate in a populated area, thus greatly endangering civilians.

During the course of operations, both US and UK forces were actively prevented from using the full means of force at their disposal. However the UK strategy of almost entirely avoiding firing explosive weapons into populated areas can be seen to have contributed significantly to reduced civilian casualties.

US practice appears to have offered greater room for interpretation among individual commanders. This is evidenced in the high level of firepower used in Fallujah in November 2004, to such an extent that it created hostility and criticism even among its own partners in the conflict. A wider military mindset is evidenced by the fact that a commander was under no requirement even to report the heavy use of explosive weapons to his superiors.

Some measures, including extensive collateral damage estimates before strikes, taken by US and UK forces at the time were positive from a humanitarian viewpoint. Ultimately, however, the most significant measure that can be taken to protect civilians, as shown by UK ground forces in Basra, is restraint in the decision to deploy explosive weapons in populated areas.

How far have the UK and US moved on since the early days of the Iraq war? More than a decade has passed, and while much of the body of military manuals and directives in place at the time likely have relevance to these two respective forces, it is unrealistic and unreasonable to think that military practice has stalled completely in the last ten years.

Both forces should take the opportunity provided by the United Nations Secretary-General in October 2014 to share examples of their policies on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to show how far they have advanced since the operations in Basra and Fallujah.[1]

When used in populated areas, explosive weapons cause a predictable pattern of death and injury to civilians. AOAV is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and believe that stronger standards in military rules of engagement can make a substantial difference. Ultimately it is only be ending the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas that we will see a significant reduction in civilian suffering.


  • State forces should immediately end the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
  • States should work collectively with others towards an international commitment aimed at preventing such use.
  • In line with a request from the United Nations Secretary-General to all Member States, the UK and US should join other governments to share examples of good practice and policy in the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
  • States should recognise the pattern of unacceptable harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and should publicly condemn any such use at every opportunity, including but not limited to the UN Security Council debates on the Protection of Civilians.
  • States, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations should gather and make available data on the impacts of explosive weapons. More should be done to protect and support the organisations and individuals that work to gather such data.
  • The United States should sign up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and outlaw the use of these inhumane weapons.
  • With Iraq continuing to see high levels of civilian casualties from explosive weapons, particularly IEDs, more must be done to support the Iraqi authorities and humanitarian agencies in the country to reduce the impact and incidents of attacks. This includes tackling the traffic and transfer of source materials for IEDs, better regulating stockpiles of ordnance, clearing explosive remnants of war in the country and ensuring that victims have properly-funded, timely and developed support.

[1] On 1 October 2014 a Note Verbale was issued to all Member States of the United Nations requesting “Member States to make available relevant information pertaining to good practice and policy that either expressly governs, or otherwise places limits on, the use by armed forces of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.” Such information is to be shared with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA/NV/188/2014.