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  • James Houser

November 10, 2004 - The Battle of Fallujah & SSG David Bellavia

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

November 10, 2004. The storm is breaking over Fallujah. American Marines and U.S. Army soldiers, along with Iraqi and British forces, swarm the Iraqi city in the most famous urban battle of the 21st Century. In one particular dwelling, SSG David Bellavia fights for his life – a series of actions for which he will be awarded the Medal of Honor. But honor is very thin on the ground elsewhere in the Iraq War’s largest battle.

There are few moments more stuffed with dramatic irony than President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration in mid-2003. Coalition forces had defeated the Iraqi Army in the field, swept into and seized Baghdad through a series of famous “thunder runs,” and driven Saddam Hussein and his family into hiding. All over the country, the coalition spread out, sending its troops to every corner to assert supremacy and try and restore order. These were the heady days of the Iraq War, when that dreaded phrase “home by Christmas” that gets kicked around in every nearsighted conflict had begun to pop up. The War seemed over.

We know better, of course. The utter collapse of Iraqi government authority, symbolized by the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, was greeted with jubilation in the wider world – but in their mad dash to the capital, American forces had left enormous pockets of Iraqi Army troops and guerrillas in their wake. These remnants faded into the general population or headed for countryside hideouts.

The government had not planned for guerrilla warfare, but all the ingredients were present for it – like a petri dish of insurgency. There were copious amounts of arms floating around, the Americans quickly wore out whatever welcome they had, and ethnic, nationalist and religious violence (long suppressed by Saddam’s Ba’athist Regime) quickly reemerged now that the lid had been blown off. Thanks to the shortsightedness of Donald Rumsfeld and the Defense Department, there were far too few Coalition troops to really secure Iraq in the aftermath of government collapse, so American control was loose and patchy. Throw in a dash of megalomania, a touch of tribal feud, and a big heaping dose of economic destruction, and…

The real surprise is not that the insurgency emerged, but that the United States did not anticipate its emergence. The generals, American Middle East experts, and State Department officials all recognized the tensions and had grim forebodings, but the White House and the Pentagon were all starry-eyed, convinced they could slap Western liberal democracy on Iraq like a new coat of paint. The new occupation government was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, who immediately upon arriving in Iraq in mid-2003 issued two fatal orders. The first dissolved the entire Iraqi government, the Baath Party, and all military forces; the second banned any former Baathists from entering the new government.

Bremer’s orders were imbecility, rank stupidity of the highest order. The orders operated on the Bush Administration’s assumption that Iraq was just like Nazi Germany, and just like Nazi Germany needed to be rebuilt from the ground up – but Iraq was not Germany. The CPA had virtually dissolved the entire political and social infrastructure of Iraq, sending a large number of disgruntled ex-soldiers home with their weapons, unemploying thousands of now-bitter young men with experience in violence. Since almost anyone who could hold a high-paying job in Saddam’s Iraq had by default been a member of the Baathist Party, Bremer’s order had also disqualified virtually the entire intelligentsia and social elite from participation in government.

And then, Oh my God! Insurgency. It’s like looking at your house burning down and saying, “My piles of oily rags! My stacks of newspaper! My beautiful drums of diesel fuel! How could this have happened?”

The relatively quiet months of mid-2003, right after the invasion, soon morphed into open hostility across Iraq by autumn. After initial hopes, Iraq soon began to descend into near-disaster. The closeted CPA civilians in the “Green Zone,” the American seven-square-mile safe space inside Baghdad, failed to comprehend what the increasingly pressed and beleaguered American soldiers and Marines were undergoing outside the wire. Attacks on convoys, patrols, and bases ballooned throughout 2003 and into early 2004. Sniping, ambushes, truck bombs, and the Iraq War’s most legendary legacy, the IED, all killed and maimed indiscriminately and callously. The death toll for American servicemen and women grew, but ultimately the Iraqis themselves suffered the most – because the Americans were not even the Iraqi insurgents’ usual targets.

In this cocktail of turmoil, as the new American administrators blithely considered themselves in control, non-state actors saw an opportunity to reassert or facilitate control. In some cases, the usual suspects showed up. Saddam had been vigorously opposed to radical Islamic groups within his territory, but with his rule vanquished they found the opportunity to slip in.

Leading the charge was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Jihadist and leader of a cell called JTJ. Zarqawi had slipped over the border in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion, and as a Sunni radical he not only sought to expel the Americans but wanted to start a sectarian war with the majority Shi’a population in Iraq. Many other Jihadists in the Iraq War found great profit in attacking different Muslim groups rather than the Americans, especially since they were less able to fight back. The United States wouldn’t just be sitting on top of an anti-Western insurgency, but an active religious civil war that they were hard-pressed to understand or control.

Al-Zarqawi made his new headquarters in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah. Situated on the Euphrates in al-Anbar province, Fallujah is a major center of Iraq’s Sunni minority with a wide reputation as a hostile and angry city. Despite his later association with al-Qaeda, al-Zarqawi would not officially associate with al-Qaeda until late 2004. Despite Rumsfeld’s obsession with “foreign fighters,” many of whom had come in alongside Zarqawi, the vast majority of his faction would eventually be made up of Iraqi Baathists, tribal warriors, and unemployed youths. The money came from all over the Muslim world, and Zarqawi was eager to start some trouble.

As the insurgency grew in scale into 2004, and the American military continued to be ill-equipped and hard-pressed to meet the growing problem, the Bush Administration remained in denial of the challenge they faced. Indiscriminate use of firepower and the lack of economic solutions continued to alienate Iraqis, and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal shocked the world and rallied support for the insurgents. These were boom times for Zarqawi, who was using the low U.S. troop numbers in the al-Anbar province to bolster his power base and dig in.

The incident that sparked the Battle of Fallujah came on March 31, 2004, when Iraqi insurgents ambushed and killed four American Blackwater contractors in the city. The four men were killed, mutilated, and burned, with their corpses hung from one of the Euphrates bridges. The photos of the event showed crowds of jubilant Iraqis gathered around the bodies, which sparked enormous indignation in the Bush Administration. In response to the political pressure for “something” to be done, American leaders turned to the newly arrived I Marine Expeditionary Force, commanded by General James Conway, and the 1st Marine Division of Major General James Mattis.

On April 3, the Expeditionary Force received a written command to launch a major ground offensive into Fallujah. This was against the advice of Conway and Mattis, who believed surgical strikes and raids targeted at the perpetrators of the massacre would be more efficient and effective. Nevertheless, on April 4 the First Battle of Fallujah – Operation Vigilant Resolve - began. Mattis’s division began to encircle the city, blockading the roads with Humvees and barbed wire. Already the civilian population was fleeing, aware of what was coming. An aircraft carrier in the Gulf provided air support, AC-130 gunships pummeled the city with Gatling guns, and F-16s bombed multiple houses and buildings. Mattis’s cordon around Fallujah became a struggle as the insurgents repeatedly tried to break the Marines’ grip, and door-to-door battles emerged between the Marines and veteran Sunni partisans.

The commencement of the Fallujah battle was met with a responsive spike in insurgent activity across Iraq. The insurgents, especially the Shiite militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, took advantage of American over-focus on Fallujah to launch simultaneous operations. The waves of violence grew ever larger as the Marines tightened their hold on Fallujah, venturing closer into the warren of broken buildings and streets. By April 7, the Marines had gained control over 25% of the city, and the insurgents had lost a number of key positions. It looked like Mattis and his jarheads were on the upswing.

Then, suddenly, Paul Bremer announced a universal ceasefire on April 9. The spike in American combat deaths – 29 dead since the start of the offensive – seemed to be too much for Bush, Rumsfeld, and Bremer. On April 28, Vigilant Resolve ended with an agreement that American troops would not enter Fallujah if the local population kept the insurgents out. It was ludicrous to think this would work. For all the bluster about “with us or against us,” the administration shrank from the flag-draped coffins coming home, and ceased the fighting before the offensive had accomplished anything. Mattis, enraged, railed against being ordered to a seize a city he didn’t want to attack, then being ordered to stop midway through. As it turned out, the politicians’ squeamishness about casualties would end up causing far more in the long term – because Fallujah remained untaken.

Though skirmishing went on around Fallujah for months, the major assault had been halted, and the insurgents were able to declare it a victory. Zarqawi in particular bandied his “defeat” of the Marines as a recruiting tool to rebuild his forces. The insurgents launched a victory parade and hung celebratory banners throughout the city. In the coming months, Zarqawi would align for the first time with Al-Qaeda, rebranding his organization as “AQI” or Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sort of like a franchise of the real Bin Laden outfit, AQI would chart its own course in the years to come.

Though an Iraqi Army unit known as the Fallujah Brigade claimed to assume control over the city, this was not worth the paper its proclamations were printed on. Iraqi Army and National Guard units had routinely fled at the first sign of combat, and their families faced harsh reprisals from insurgents. By mid-summer, Fallujah had descended into a miniature Islamist theocracy, with Sharia law in brutal force and possible collaborators publicly beaten and tortured. Before long, the Fallujah Brigade was just another competing power in their namesake city, and inter-factional fighting erupted across town. Though I’ve focused on Zarqawi, he was only one of many leaders fighting within Fallujah, and when the Americans weren’t around they were at each other’s throats.

The U.S. military also focused on Zarqawi, and throughout summer and fall launched airstrikes on Fallujah targeting his organization. As they maintained their cordon around the city and began to beef up firepower for a second major assault, the insurgents prepared as well. When the Americans entered Fallujah for the second time, they would enter the most extensively prepared battlefield since World War II. The insurgents dug tunnels and trenches, prepared bunkers and booby traps, built barricades and laid IEDs. Like the beaches of Normandy, they built obstacles into interlocking fields of fire and turned chokepoints into death traps. The insurgents included Chechens, Saudis, Libyans, and even Filipino Jihadists – but the vast majority were Iraqis. Most of Fallujah’s population, knowing what was coming, fled the city AGAIN as the Americans prepared to finally clear Fallujah.

The American-led forces prepping to attack Fallujah mostly consisted of the 1st Marine Division, with large supporting arms from both the Army and the Navy – 13,500 troops in all. Since the Marines are basically the Navy’s Army, Naval “Seabee” construction battalions and medical units followed the advancing Jarheads, and Army forces from the 1st Infantry and 1st Cavalry Division provided heavy mechanized tank and Bradley support. About 2,000 Iraqi troops (almost useless) and 850 men of the British Army’s Black Watch (far from useless) performed supporting functions, and large elements of Army artillery and Air Force fighter aircraft supplemented the Marine helicopters. All these for about 3,000 insurgents. The United States’ recruiting-ad style, steel-tipped hammer was about to fall on the city of Fallujah in America’s bloodiest battle since Vietnam.

On the night of November 7, 2004, the great assault on Fallujah – Operation Phantom Fury – began. Army, Navy, and Marine troops crashed in from the west and south on the first day of the attack. Navy SEALs and Marine Force Recon provided the opening waves, designating targets around the city perimeter. Mortars boomed on the outskirts as the desert sky was illuminated by rockets, artillery signatures, and rifle fire. But the operations on the western side of town were a complex diversion, meant to draw attention from the north where the real operations were taking place.

Two Marine Regimental Combat Teams, the 1st and the 7th, bit into the northern edge of Fallujah just after engineers had managed to capture and disable the power stations. They were joined by two U.S. Army heavy mechanized battalions, which provided direct fire support into the mass of buildings for the advancing Marine infantry. As the British Black Watch (once the 42nd Highlanders of Waterloo fame) maintained the cordon of the city to the east, the steel grip of American firepower and military might began to slowly crush into the Sunni core of Fallujah.

It was not an easy fight. Intense artillery barrages from 155mm Marine howitzers were followed by armored bulldozers that cleared obstacles before the infantry advanced and the tanks plunged in. District after district was engulfed in blasts from M-16s and AK-47s as the Marine and Army troops battered their way through one building after another. It was like a vast desert-camo wave sweeping the city from the north, engulfing the urban center in a mass of flame, dust, smoke and blood.

Fallujah was unlike any other fight of the Iraq War. The main experience of many American servicemen and women in the Iraq conflict was bad enough: the endless patrols, nighttime shelling of the FOB, the paranoia and monotony that could be randomly broken by destruction. But Fallujah was a different kind of beast: it was a full-on BATTLE, on a scale not seen since Vietnam and possibly America’s last battle so far, depending on how you categorize it. It was in this flaming, cacophonous, urban hell that SSG David Bellavia of the U.S. Army found himself on November 10, 2004.

Bellavia was an infantry sergeant in 2-2 Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division. His platoon of mechanized infantry had been assigned to clear a city block from which insurgents were laying down fire at American forces. In one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in modern war, Bellavia took his squad into the block and began to clear rooms, fighting house-to-house in the style of Stalingrad. As they neared one of the houses, the squad was pinned down under heavy enemy fire. Bellavia rushed into the house to clear it himself. Storming through the doorway, hearing his Bradley’s 25mm cannon hacking away at the building from outside, Bellavia raised his rifle and killed an insurgent preparing to fire an RPG at his squad.

He then shot and wounded a second insurgent before moving on into the next room. To his surprise, the wounded insurgent followed him at the same time as another insurgent came charging down the stairs. Bellavia fought off both his assailants with bursts from his rifle.

Bellavia pushed through the house like a one-man fighting machine, killing another insurgent on his way up the stairs before being surprised by another foe coming out of the bedroom closet. When this insurgent escaped, Bellavia pursued his enemy, following his bloody footprints to a room filled with explosives. Unwilling to fire his rifle, Bellavia engaged the insurgent in hand-to-hand fighting before stabbing him through the shoulder and killing him. Ascending to the roof, he killed yet another insurgent that had jumped over to the roof. SSG David Bellavia had cleared an entire house full of veteran, well-armed Iraqi insurgents on his lonesome. For this action, he would receive the Medal of Honor in 2018, the only living recipient from the Iraq War.

But the battle was not over, and no matter how many Bellavias accomplished great deeds, mistakes happened and Americans died. The Coalition blew Fallujah apart, nearly levelling much of the city, in their climactic assault on the insurgent stronghold. At least a fifth of Fallujah’s buildings were completely destroyed, and most of the rest bore considerable damage. Hospitals, mosques, residences, businesses, and critical infrastructure were heavily damaged, and the Red Cross estimated that at least 800 civilians died during the massacre – many at the hands of insurgents.

After nine days of the most intense and sustained fighting American combatants had seen since Vietnam, on November 16, 2004, the Fallujah operation was reduced to hunting down packets of resistance, though fighting would continue until well into December. The price was high. 95 Americans had been killed and 560 wounded, making the Second Battle of Fallujah America’s bloodiest of the 21st Century. The British Black Watch suffered 14 killed and wounded, and Iraqi forces 51. The insurgents lost at least 1,500 killed, but they had exacted a bloody toll. Coalition forces rested victorious but bloodied atop the broken wreck of a city within the broken wreck of a country.

What came of Fallujah? It was hard to call it a victory, though this does not diminish the efforts of the men and women who fought it. The battle should never have happened; it was caused by American overconfidence during the invasion, the Bush Administration’s blindness after the invasion, and political waffling during the crisis of April 2004. The fact that American troops had to fight a difficult, brutal urban battle at ALL 18 months after “Mission Accomplished” was an obvious failure of American policy, and to be honest it hasn’t gotten much better. We know the story of the Iraq War, because we all lived through it in one way or another.

But Fallujah persisted, and the memory of the battle remained. Zarqawi was killed in 2006, but his organization survived. From the seeds of the JTJ, a Jordanian Jihadist group on the periphery of the world, would grow some of the infamous monsters of the 21st Century. For JTJ had become AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq), and after Zarqawi’s death its leadership would eventually end up in the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. AQI would be rebranded “ISIS”, and in 2014 would recapture the city of its birth when they took Fallujah from the Iraqi Army.

From the bloody soil of Fallujah, many ghosts have cried out for the last sixteen years, and they are not all banished.

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