Toby Harnden accompanies American troops as they fight the insurgents with everything they’ve got
Slumped in a corner, his face drawn and smeared with grime after five days’ fighting through the city, Specialist Lance Ohle of the US army’s Task Force 2-2 surveyed the room. ‘Can you imagine coming into your house and finding it like this?’ he mused. ‘Oh, man.’ Every window in the cinder-block house was shattered. A 155mm shell had blown a large hole through the roof. The front gate had been crushed by a Bradley fighting vehicle and every door kicked in. Bags and suitcases left by the fleeing family had been emptied, their contents strewn across the dining-room floor and mixed with empty packets from MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) boxes, the staple diet of the troops. Only two things hung on the bullet-pocked wall — a pink Barbie plate and a photograph of a mournful-looking man with a thick moustache.
Specialist Jesse Flannery, a hefty New Englander, flipped through a copy of an American Iron motorcycle magazine he had found in a cupboard and grumbled about how bad the MRE version of clam chowder was. In the next door room, the rest of 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company, known as the Terminators, frisbeed CDs at each other and joked about the platoon member who had lost a testicle to a piece of shrapnel.
There was a dispute about who had defecated in an iron bath outside and what disease he might have been afflicted with. Everyone reeked. ‘If you spilled 10 bottles of piss on me I’d probably smell better than I do now,’ said one soldier, with only slight exaggeration. ‘Probably some of the civilians will become insurgents because of what has happened,’ said Specialist Ohle, from Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. He had just been shooting stray dogs from the roof as a way of zeroing his M-16 rifle. ‘But this is not something they didn’t know was going to happen. We said get the hell out of Fallujah because it’s going to be destroyed. And destroyed is what it got.’
He was right. Fallujah has been devastated. Rather than risk the lives of soldiers bursting into houses where insurgents might be lying in wait with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, wherever possible US forces have been blowing the building up first.
Artillery shells from Paladin howitzers, 25mm shells from Bradleys, main rounds of Abrams tanks with names like ‘Ali Baba and the 3 Thieves’ and ‘Armor Geddon’, and the devastating 1,000lb Joint Direct Attack Munition; all were used on abandoned homes across the city, and with good reason. Many houses were rigged with explosives. Others contained temporary weapons caches. The cinder-block house I was in with the Terminators had contained night-vision sights, grenades and magazines for a 9mm pistol and an AK-47.
Civilians had been given ample notice that an attack was coming. There had been broadcasts telling people to leave the city and Fallujah was littered with leaflets in Arabic saying that no one should drive. It appears that all but a few thousand — at most — of the 280,000 residents of Fallujah heeded the warnings. In a week in the north and east of the city while embedded with Task Force 2-2, I did not see a single civilian. The first civilians the unit’s soldiers came across were waving children lining up outside the Camp Fallujah base when they returned on Tuesday. The children were thrown muffins and MREs. Despite the predictable noise about a grave humanitarian crisis and huge numbers of civilian casualties, a signal achievement of the military campaign was to clear most of the city before the troops went in. The downside, of course, was that this meant there was no element of strategic surprise. The battle of Fallujah was one of the most telegraphed engagements in modern warfare.
Repeated feints to flat ground in the east and south meant the insurgents were probably startled to face an enemy bulldozing from a massive berm from the north. The sheer magnitude of American firepower and the willingness of commanders to use it might also have taken them aback. But the insurgents knew the attack was coming and most of the leadership, and perhaps thousands of foot soldiers, got out. ‘Insurgents have a survival instinct so when faced with overwhelming odds they run,’ said Lt Col Pete Newell, the shaven-headed, softly spoken CO of 2-2. ‘They won’t engage in a battle that they can’t win. That would be the end of the insurgency.’
The insurgency is not about to end. In classic guerrilla fashion, many of the fighters melted away to fight another day. Even as the battle for Fallujah raged, there were fresh assaults in the cities of Mosul and Baquba and violence was stepped up in Baghdad. Nor is that all. Television footage of what appears to be a US marine shooting an unarmed insurgent, as he lay wounded in a mosque where he had been fighting, could well undermine what moral superiority America still enjoys in Arab eyes. War is cruel but most American soldiers draw the line at shooting prisoners. Specialist Ohle said he took no joy in the Terminators shooting two wounded Iraqis who had attacked them from a room with AK-47s and had RPGs beside them. ‘They still had weapons in their hands so we didn’t take the chance of giving them aid. We finished them off.’
Does the fanning out of insurgents mean the battle for Fallujah was not worth fighting or that the 38 American soldiers who died, not to mention the estimated 1,200 insurgents and an unknown number of civilians, perished for nothing? No country could tolerate a small city being in the grip of men like Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, the Jordanian leader of the small band of foreign fighters in Fallujah. Neither would any government tolerate a safe haven for those who wanted to manufacture suicide car bombs or organise the beheadings of kidnap victims. The existence of ‘no go’ areas for the Iraqi police force and security forces, or anyone connected with the country’s interim government, would have condemned the forthcoming elections, due in January, to failure.
‘Is Fallujah going to be a rock the vote place? I don’t know,’ said Staff Sgt David Bellavia, a Terminator NCO able to hold forth about German revisionist history as well as how to kill people. ‘But the inmates had taken over the asylum.’ The optimistic view is that the battle of Fallujah will send a message to Iraqis that allowing their town or city to be run by insurgents — which requires local acquiescence — is simply not worth it.
But despite its symbolism as a jihadi stronghold, Fallujah is only one city in the Sunni triangle and the battle there only one engagement. There is every possibility that the insurgents will push to increase their influence in Baghdad, Samarra, Tikrit and Ramadi as well as further afield. There is ample evidence that the Sunni insurgents are an increasingly potent foe. Those that stayed behind to fight in Fallujah won the grudging respect of the more thoughtful marines and grunts, even if their commanders have portrayed the enemy as ‘these bastards’, ‘knuckleheads’ or even ‘Satan’. Staff Sgt Colin Fitts, a combat-hardened Mississippian who was shot three times back in April and returned to Iraq four months later itching to get back into the fight, said, ‘These guys really know what they’re doing here. They’re not punks, they’re not run of the mill. They know they can’t fight us from the front so they skip in behind us and hit us in our rear areas. They’re real good at manoeuvre warfare.’
Capt Sean Sims and Lt Edward Iwan, respectively the company commander and his executive officer, were both killed in areas that Task Force 2-2 thought it had secured. Capt Sims was shot dead in a kitchen, Lt Iwan hit by an RPG as he leant out of the turret of his Bradley.
Fitts, a by-the-book NCO who drives his men hard, took no chances when the ramps of the Bradleys were dropped, disgorging the Terminators so they could clear buildings. Shotgun in hand — ‘I prefer it for close quarters’ — he stood by the door of the cinder-block house and boomed out orders as his men stormed it by night. ‘We’ve got a doorway left, two doorways front,’ he shouted as the platoon piled in. ‘Short room to the right. Come on, Bravo team, stack on the stairwell.’ As well as killing Sims and Iwan, the insurgents claimed the life of 2-2’s inspirational Command Sergeant Major Steve Faulkenburg with a bullet from a Dragonov sniper’s rifle on the first night.
The insurgents had a formidable network of fortified trenches and tunnels. They used Motorola walkie-talkies or, to avoid electronic surveillance, bicycle couriers to communicate. Small stashes of weapons were left in houses so the fighters could jump from building to building rather than drag everything with them. They seemed to know every alley and hole in the city, slipping away to avoid what seemed like a certain death or sneaking in to kill. ‘They got the phantom bit right,’ said Sgt Fitts, reflecting on the American designation ‘Operation Phantom Fury’ for the battle. ‘They have been ghosts.’
With Dope’s ‘Die Motherfucker Die’ blaring out from the psychological operations Humvee, the Terminators entered Fallujah to go about their business in the way they know best. They played ‘Rage Against the Machine’ in the backs of their Bradleys and enjoyed the buzz of killing. When it was over, they sat laughing about the insurgents who had jumped out of closets to fight them or wrapped themselves in curtains to hide. They joked about the cat they’d seen eating the face of a corpse, about the fighter who had been ‘fragged’ by a grenade and shot several times but who still managed to jump off a roof and escape. They celebrated victory but most of all they were intoxicated by being alive. ‘The 1st Infantry Division stormed the beaches in Normandy; we fought in Vietnam and Desert Storm. In the history books, Fallujah will rank alongside the battles of Grozny and Khe Sanh,’ said Sgt Fitts.
Iraq, however, cannot wait for the historians to judge. If there is any chance of stability and democracy being established here, then the forthcoming elections are the key. The battle of Fallujah was an important step. After the debacle in April when US marines were first ordered to take the city and then pulled back before they had completed the task, Operation Phantom Fury, in its conception and execution, was a necessity. But whether there is any longer an achievable solution to Iraq’s ills is another question entirely.
Toby Harnden is with the Daily Telegraph.