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A Tale of Two Cities: US Operations in Fallujah (2004)

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 the US deployment of explosive weapons during two operations in Fallujah in 2004.

To read the full report see here.

Fallujah 2004

Fallujah is a city in the Iraqi province of al-Anbar, forty miles west of Baghdad. US planning before the operation began noted that most of Fallujah’s 50,000 buildings were residential, and densely-packed. The city’s layout was random, with no distinction between residential homes, businesses and industry, while the Jolan district in the northeast of the city was formed of “twisting alleyways and a tangle of streets.”

In 2003 Fallujah had been described as the “most hostile place in Iraq,” where “grenade attacks and drive-by shootings were a daily occurrence.” Fallujah became the site of rapidly-escalating tensions between the US and opposition forces. In April 2003 US troops opened fire on Iraqi protesters during an anti-American rally, killing fifteen in an incident that furthered widespread hostility. In November 2003, five months before the first operation in Fallujah, a US Chinook helicopter was brought down by an anti-aircraft missile outside the city, killing 16 soldiers on-board. The political set-up in Fallujah was far more hostile to foreign troops than the conditions faced by UK forces in Basra.

The US led two separate operations in Fallujah, the first in April 2004 (Operation Vigilant Resolve), and the second during November and December 2004 (Operation Al-Fajr/Phantom Fury). The two operations are considered together in this report.

AOAV IGw Iraq Fallujah

 Firepower for Manpower

On 31st March 2004, gunmen in the centre of Fallujah ambushed four American contractors working with the private-firm Blackwater Security. The images of their burnt and mutilated bodies were beamed across the world. The uproar that followed placed a huge amount of public and political pressure on the US military to respond. Unlike in Basra, there was a fervent sense of urgency for the need to take Fallujah and to root out those responsible for the murders of the contractors.

Everything to the west is weapons-free […] We’re going to let loose the dogs of war. It will be hell.” Staff Sgt. Sam Mortimer, Fallujah, November 2004

The US launched ‘Operation Vigilant Resolve’ on 5 April 2004. In contrast to UK actions in Basra, a far more restrictive cordon was set up around the city. All roads into Fallujah were closed, with a strict curfew imposed from 7pm to 6am. Women, children and elderly men were not allowed to leave the city until 9 April 2004, by which time there had already been heavy fighting in the city, including the bombing of a mosque compound in the city centre on 7 April.

The need to minimise collateral damage was clearly indicated throughout the planning of operations. The protection of civilians is stressed throughout, for example, the 1st Marine Division Rules of Engagement (RoE) carried by US forces in Fallujah. Yet from its earliest stages the US engagement in Fallujah showed a clear presumption towards the deployment of heavy explosive weapons in what were densely populated areas.

Two battalion task forces with about 2,000 soldiers in total led the first assault into Fallujah on 5 April. They were backed by ten M1A1 tanks and a battery of powerful M198 howitzers. Marine regiments attacked from the northwest and southeast. Supported by jet fighters and attack helicopters, US forces engaged in intense urban street fighting for several weeks until 28 April 2004, when the city was given over to Iraqi forces.

‘Operation Phantom Fury’ in November 2004 made even greater use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas of the city. Efforts to restore security to Fallujah through Iraqi troops after the first operation ended in April failed in part because the US decision-making hierarchy felt that the connection with the local community prevented the ‘Fallujah Brigade’ from being aggressive enough in their use of force. Before the US launched a ground offensive to retake the city, Fallujah was “pummelled for hours” by airstrikes targeting suspected safe houses and strongholds.

On 7 November 2004, an estimated 10,000-15,000 US troops launched a ground assault on the city. Pre-planned targets were pounded by artillery and air strikes, where “death and destruction rained down on the city from AC-130s [ground-attack aircraft] to any kind of fast-moving aircraft, 155mm howitzers, you name it – everything was getting in on the bombardment.” It was thought that most of the 300,000 citizens of Fallujah had fled before Operation Phantom Fury (otherwise known as Operation Al-Fajr) began, but there were no official figures on this and thus attacking forces could not have known how many civilians remained in the city. Estimates at the time suggest that even if 70-90 percent of the population had managed to flee, a minimum of 25,000 civilians remained caught among the falling bombs. The US again placed a cordon around the city. Unlike in Operation Vigilant Resolve, they encouraged civilians, except for military-age men 16 to 55, to leave the city.

The US 2004 Field Manual on Counterinsurgency Operations states that, “The American way of war has been to substitute firepower for manpower. As a result, US forces have frequently resorted to firepower in the form of artillery or air any time they make contact.”

Free fire

Indirect-fire weapons like artillery and mortars can be launched without a clear line of sight to a target, i.e. over buildings. The US deployed two different 155mm artillery pieces during the Fallujah operations, the M198 and the M109A6 Paladins. The powerful Paladins can fire shells over 13 miles: “The shells typically strike within about five yards of their target and are likely to kill anyone within 55 yards of the point of impact.” Using such potent weaponry in a populated area puts civilians at great risk. Its use on a significant scale in Fallujah by US forces was heavily criticised even by its allies. Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British commander serving with American forces described how “on one night over 40 155mm artillery rounds were fired into a small sector of the city.” Brig. Aylwin-Foster described how large sections of the city were treated as a free-fire zone in an attempt to reduce casualties among US troops. British officers at the time were reportedly “appalled by the lack of concern for civilian casualties” shown in the operation conduct, and that notably “the US commander who ordered this devastating use of firepower did not consider it significant enough to mention it in his daily report to the US general in command.”

That it was not thought necessary to report the scale of artillery deployed in the operation reflects an attitude that did hold dear the stated intention of mitigating civilian casualties. It was this gung-ho approach that resulted in the destruction and damage of half of Fallujah’s buildings over the course of two short operations. Reporter Kevin Sites, embedded with US forces in Fallujah during the second operation, described how Marines were allowed to operate with ‘liberal’ rules of engagement. “Nuisances”, Sites relayed, were “met with overwhelming firepower.”  The relaxed RoE described by Sites reflected the need to preclude military casualties among US forces. They gave far greater leeway to US commanders on the ground to deploy explosive weapons than had been seen earlier through the UK approach to Basra.

US forces made extensive use of heavy explosive weapons with wide-area effects in and among civilian homes and residential areas in Fallujah. Between 7 November and 23 December, Fallujah was battered by 14,000 artillery and mortar shells, and 2,500 tank main gun rounds. At least 540 air strikes struck targets in and around the city. The vast quantity of ordnance launched into the city resulted in a considerable risk from explosive remnants of war (ERW), which continued to threaten the lives of civilian residents after the operations ended.

When compared with the UK approach in Basra, the ready and widespread deployment of heavy explosive weapons in Fallujah can be seen to be a deeply concerning practice, not only because of the inherent and heightened threat that it posed to civilians and civilian objects, but also from a strategic perspective. The heavy-handedness in military practice in Fallujah arguably played a great role in heightening hostility and grievance among the opposition, as well as severely damaging relationships with allies and supporters around the world.

 “My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans’ use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. The US will have to abandon the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut approach.” UK officer, speaking to The Telegraph newspaper, in Jonathan Holmes, “Fallujah: Eyewitness testimony from Iraq’s besieged city” (2007)

ThermobariReleased by Col. Olivier R. USMCcs

On 9 November 2004, thousands of US troops began a ground offensive in Fallujah, moving from residential home to residential home. This process of house clearance was characterised by the regular use of fragmentation grenades. US forces also deployed “disposable one-shot rockets called thermobarics – new explosives that drove up the overpressure in confined spaces, creating tremendous destruction.” In a Marines field report from April 2003, the thermobaric round was assessed, where “one unit disintegrated a large one-story masonry type building with one round from 100 meters.”

Thermobarics, also called ‘vacuum bombs’, use a small charge to generate a cloud of explosive mixed with air, which is detonated by the explosives reacting with the air. This creates a vacuum, which sucks up any remaining oxygen, collapsing lungs and buildings alike. “This significantly increases the firepower that can be put in a single person’s hands,” said Reuben Brigety of Human Rights Watch. “I’m not aware of any other conventional munitions used by a single person that can have the same destructive power.” They significantly magnify a typical blast effect and can affect a very wide area. Even in a light weapon a thermobaric munition has a massive potential for destruction. It is entirely inappropriate for use in populated areas.

Counting the Cost

Air strikes took a heavy toll on the city of Fallujah. US jets dropped a wide variety of munitions ranging from Hellfire missiles to massive aircraft bombs. Approximately 150 air strikes during the first operations completely destroyed more than 75 buildings in the city, including two mosques.At least 318 precision bombs, 391 rockets and missiles, and 93,000 machine gun or cannon rounds were fired in the second assault on Fallujah alone.

Journalist Tara Sutton collected testimonies from witnesses to the bombing of Fallujah during the first assault, claiming that air strikes often seemed imprecise and inaccurate.

One resident of the densely populated Jolan district described what happened to his neighbours: “We came running. He was lying here, blown to bits. We even took pieces from the ceiling, and we left them here. They all died except one child.” One resident described how he was sitting at home with his wife and four children when a missile flew through their door at 9pm: “We were sitting in this room. I was hit by shrapnel. My 18-month old son was hit on the head.” His young daughter was killed.

Behind us there’s a market… that’s where the bombing started. A car was going round there, it was shooting at the Americans and the Americans bombed the houses and the schools. It was haphazard bombing.” Fallujah resident, 2004 in Tara Sutton’s “Fallujah Forensics”

Jo Wilding, a human rights activist in Fallujah during the first assault, wrote on 17 April 2004: “The aerial bombardment starts with the night and we stand outside watching the explosions and the flames. The cacophony of planes and explosions goes on through the night. I wake from my doze certain that rockets are being fired from the garden outside our room. Rhythmic, deep, resonating, the barrage goes on and the fear spreads in my belly anticipating an explosion from the air to stop the rockete[e]r.”

In one attack, on 7 April 2004, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said that US forces dropped two 500 pound bombs at the wall of the Abd al-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque: “My understanding is that we went after one set of insurgents that were hiding behind the outer wall of a mosque, not the mosque itself.” Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne had ordered the attack on the mosque when his troops were fired upon by 30 to 40 insurgents, yet it later emerged that no bodies could be found. Hospital sources reported that at least 45 Iraqis were killed and 90 injured that day in attacks across Fallujah. Among the casualties were a civilian family sitting in a car parked behind the Abd al-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque when it was bombed.

‘Permissable limits’

Colonel Earl S. Wederbrook, 1st Marine Air Wing staff, described how the rules of engagement for air strikes in Fallujah “were very explicit… do not drop unless you are absolutely sure of your target. And then only use the munitions that would minimize collateral damage.” He also emphasised that “certain buildings and all mosques were strictly off limits… map drills were held every night pointing out buildings that were not authorized as targets” and that “pilots memorized the collateral damage estimates and danger close distances of all their available ordnance.”

Despite withdrawing in April 2004, the US military continued launching air strikes on Fallujah, particularly targeting safehouses used by Abu Musab Zarqawi, an insurgency leader linked to al-Qaeda, and loyalists. On 19 June 2004 the US bombed a residential neighbourhood with the aim of destroying a safe house used by Zarqawi loyalists. Residents said, however, that around 20 people were killed in the attack, including women and children.

A statement about the attack read: “It is standard operating procedure to conduct a detailed collateral damage estimate prior to approval of this type of mission. The collateral damage estimate was within permissible limits, and this operation was within standing rules of engagement.”

What exactly defines a ‘permissible limit’ in these cases is key in evaluating the effectiveness of this measure, potentially a vital and effective tool to minimising civilian casualties. In Iraq, US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was personally required to authorise strikes that were anticipated to cause more than 30 civilian casualties.

32 seconds

The short length of time taken from identifying targets to launching an air strike was a growing concern throughout the operations in Fallujah. A few months after the April 2004 operation, footage shot in the same month emerged showing a US F-16 fighter pilot requesting permission from ground control to fire upon a group of individuals. In the video he is told immediately to do so, the pilot locks the bomb guidance system, and an attack is launched. The length of the engagement is just 32 seconds.

The military claimed that the ground commander saw the crowd fire at the Marines, and that the commander had already asked the pilot to target a building from where the insurgents had fired. But defence experts, when shown the footage, did not accept that the crowd was behaving as an “offensive military force.”

The US Air Force in Iraq has been criticised for adopting “an unsound targeting methodology that relied on intercepts of satellite phones and inadequate corroboration of intelligence. Targeting based on geo-coordinates derived from satellite phones in essence rendered U.S. precision weapons potentially indiscriminate.”

Moreover if the length of time taken from identifying an emerging target to dropping a bomb on the crowd is a mere 32 seconds, there would be no time for a detailed assessment of the damage likely to arise or of incidental harm to civilians. A Department of Defense source acknowledged that in some cases, adequate collateral damage estimates for leadership strikes could not be carried out due to time constraints.

The emergency of a new target in the dynamic heat of battle does not excuse a force from its obligation to conduct comprehensive estimates of the potential impact of any air strike on civilians and civilian objects.  A failure to conduct such assessments drastically increases the risk that any eventual strike will lead to civilian casualties, particularly if it is carried out in a populated area.

Civilian cost

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society described the situation in Fallujah as a big disaster.” The Nazzal Emergency hospital in Fallujah was razed to the ground in an airstrike on 6 November. Dozens of homes, as well as a nearby medical supplies storeroom, were destroyed in the attack. Remaining hospitals and medical staff were in short supply of blood, oxygen and antiseptics, and there were reports of clerics turning a football field into a makeshift cemetery. Those who remained in the city resorted to desperate measures to survive. One Fallujan resident, Mashadani, a car mechanic, stayed in the city believing that the US military would not harm his family. However, bombs struck close to his home, and his family had to drink water from a hole they had dug when water supplies ran out.

In its analysis of the first assault on Fallujah in April 2004, Iraq Body Count concluded that between 572 and 616 of the approximately 800 recorded deaths from armed violence in the city were civilians (as high as 69% of total fatalities). Over 300 of these were women and children. AOAV analysis of IBC data suggests that at least 674-766 people died in bombing and shelling during the second operation.