Preparing for Fallujah

The city of Fallujah has a population of around 300000, with about 150000 crammed into the core of the fairly modern city. Within the so-called Sunni Triangle, Fallujah and Ramadi have been in the hands of Iraqi insurgents since the collapse of the Saddam Regime, the well known terrorist Al-Zarqawi has been carrying well-document terrorist activity from within the city’s confines. An attempt by US Marines to clear the city of insurgents was aborted in April this year for reasons other than military, it left the Marines frustrated and angry at the seeming political interference. The expert opinion was that the US Marines would have to finish the job at a later date, with a commensurate increase in casualties. From sporadic attacks against stray targets, the insurgents have become increasingly bolder. Not only they have taken hostages but have executed them if their demands were not met, they have also carried out a number of suicide bomb and mortar/rocket attacks within the so-called “Green Zone” in Baghdad, the HQs of the US and Coalition Command in Iraq.

While almost every Iraqi city has its nucleus of insurgents/terrorists, the effectiveness and the number of coordinated terrorist attacks has increased because of Al-Zarqawi and his organization. Thee was no question of turning a blind eye, Fallujah had to be dealt with, the inhibiting factors were viz (1) the high human cost of fighting in built-up areas (2) the impending US Presidential elections where the incumbent would have been affected by the resulting high casualties (3) the poor performance of the Iraqi National Guards (ING), a high percentage of whom desert as soon as fighting starts (4) the lack of adequate intelligence about the insurgents within the city and (5) the lack of enough US troops on the ground in Iraq for reinforcements if called upon.

Since the US Marines pulled back in April 2004, Fallujah has been a festering sore, acting as a symbol of resistance to anti-US fighters across the country. When the US forces decided to take on Mullah Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Shia (Mehdi Army) forces in Najaf, the die was cast that there would be commensurate action against the Sunnis who form the bulk of the Fallujah insurgents, the only question was when. One of the major problems facing the US forces was the training of ING troops, now they have started concentrating on quality rather than quantity. By mid-October, US Marines and the ING contingent gradually started to cordon off Fallujah and Ramadi.

Some of history’s urban battles have been very bloody, the siege of Shalingrad, first by the German troops, and in their turn by the Soviet forces, is an epic by itself. However urban warfare can be very unpredictable one should not assume that all urban battles will be bloody. Because of inexperience among the defenders, including military incompetence among their leaders and/or a lack of commitment, some urban defences have collapsed almost immediately e.g. Baghdad against the US-led Coalition forces. Because of Zarqawi’s diehards and committed armed Islamist fighters, it is generally assumed that the battles for Fallujah will be hard-fought. While that would be against all guerilla teachings, where the guerilla defenders should melt into the countryside at the first sign of an overwhelming force, the US is hoping that they will stand and fight so that they can be eliminated by superior firepower, and the US does not have to fight them again in another setting. Therefore the battle for Fallujah has been well planned this time around, the battleground well prepared.

For many months now, using Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), radars, night vision equipment, electronic surveillance, field intelligence, etc the US-led Coalition Forces have mapped the battlefield are well. Keeping in mind the defenders’ strong points the attackers have worked out possible routes of advance, they have then softened these by air and artillery strikes. While the insurgents within Fallujah have had time to prepare also, the Iraqi Govt has laid the political groundwork by declaring a state of emergency before the eventual attack.

It is estimated that of the original 300000 population, only about 40000-50000 are left in the city. The insurgents likely number 2000-3000 but they have a lot of help from the sympathizers among the inhabitants left in the city, this not only includes administrative support but part-timers also. The US will try to isolate the insurgents in an area so that they can be decimated by the use of armour and infantry, attacked from the air (as well as artillery) and destroyed by Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs). While the insurgents certainly have the capacity to inflict casualties, their potential compared to the US-led assaulting forces is very negligible. This is perhaps the most high-tech urban warfare force ever, with very superior tactical experience and training, with the additional advantage of having air and army aviation support. The only unknown quantity is how the ING will perform, that is why the capture of the city’s main hospital in the peninsula to the west of Falluja by Iraqi Special Forces was very important psychologically for the Iraqis, and a source of some comfort to the US troops who had trained them and expect they will fight alongside.

A source of consolation to the attacking forces is that there are many small groups among the Sunnis, it is not known whether they will unite, or for that matter even fight as a force. Among the Sunni groups are many foreign volunteers, some are Islamists but many are simply nationalists drawn together by anti-US feeling. While they seem to be committed, there is concern among US and Iraqi government circles is that the hard-core insurgents may initially fight and melt away then leaving a screen, living to fight another day. The choice before the US commanders is whether to advance quickly and likely incur civilian casualties and collateral damages, including destruction of mosques, etc, or whether to go slowly and surely, in a methodical manner. The downside of being careful is that cumulatively there may ultimately be more damage and casualties and than if the swift violent method is employed. Because of PGMs and real-time battlefield intelligence this can be kept down. However a lot will depend upon how the US is using Iraqi forces, this will scale down the adverse TV images of US forces attacking religious sites and inflicting civilian casualties. Overall, the US forces have to exercise reasonable restraint without compromising their operational effectiveness.

The personnel of the ING and Iraqi police are under great pressure to perform but they and their families are being increasingly targetted by the insurgents. Over 200 soldiers and policemen have been executed in the past months as collaborators. The weak Iraqi government with its lack of political credibility has added complexity to an already horrendous situation. If the hard-core of the insurgent force is not destroyed and despite the US cordon manage to slip through and infiltrate to other cities than Fallujah may be the first of many urban area battles. As civilian casualties and collateral damage mount, so will the number of recruits to the insurgents, and even with the increase of Iraqi ground forces it may then become very difficult for the US to handle insurgency over a lengthy period of time. Unless the Iraqi government strengthens its political base and provides authoritative but good governance, the outlook is bleak in the face of continuing death and destruction, the situation becoming increasingly custom-built for anarchy.