Since the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the city of Fallujah has been the site of repeated combat operations. Fallujah was besieged and assaulted twice in 2004 by a US-led military coalition and again ten years later when the city was occupied by the Islamic State and besieged by the Iraqi government. Fallujah is a medium-sized city of roughly 300,000 people in Iraq’s western province of Anbar. Otherwise a backwater of Iraq, this city has been a central focus of Iraq’s insurgencies and counterinsurgencies over the past fifteen years, and as such it has taken on considerable symbolic and political importance.
Fallujah became a major center of resistance to the US-led occupation in 2003. When US forces had to abort an attempted siege and sweep of the city in 2004, Fallujah’s rebels became folk heroes throughout Iraq and much of the third world. Its rise to fame was followed shortly by a large scale US-led siege and assault six months later that nearly destroyed the city. For many years after, Fallujans lived under severe security measures as reconstruction efforts slowly repaired the city. Meanwhile, a public health crisis emerged in the city. Residents witnessed extreme rises in the rates of birth defects and cancers. Preliminary studies suggest that war pollution caused the health crisis.
The reasons for Fallujah’s militancy are partly accidental, partly historical. Eighty years before the second US-led invasion of Iraq, Fallujah played a major role in Iraq’s decolonization struggles against the British. But also Fallujah’s location near several highways leading to neighboring Arab countries was advantageous for guerrilla warfare, facilitating the smuggling weapons and fighters. Whatever the reasons for its ability to resist foreign powers, fifteen years of protracted conflict has brought extensive damage to the city and immeasurable loss and suffering to its residents.
This point is often overlooked by Western observers: Fallujah is also a city of families, children, professionals, and students. Due to its fame as a center of resistance, Fallujah’s military history has often overshadowed its social and cultural history, and the experiences of ordinary Fallujans have rarely reached English speaking audiences. Many gaps exist in the historical record of this conflict, but what we know goes roughly as follows:
The conflict began several weeks after the US-led invasion on March 20, 2003. US forces considered Fallujah to be of minimal strategic importance as they cruised by the city on their way to capture Baghdad. The US Army finally deployed their 82nd Airborne Division to occupy Fallujah on April 23. Initially, Fallujans had mixed opinions about the invasion and occupation of their country. Many opposed the invasion, no matter how much they disliked Saddam Hussein, as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Others thought more pragmatically and hoped that life might improve under a new government. However, the behavior of US troops in the city alienated their supporters and quickly turned public opinion against the occupation.
On April 28, dozens began protesting the occupation and the US Army’s use of the al-Qa’id primary school building as a base. There are differing accounts of what happened next. US forces fired into the crowd, killing 13 people, including 6 children, and wounding more than 70. Two days later there was another protest, and again US forces fired into the crowd, killing 3 and injuring 16. These events are regarded as the spark that gave birth to Fallujah’s insurgency.
Over the course of the next year clashes between insurgent groups and the occupying forces escalated. The conflict reached a tipping point when four American mercenaries working for the Blackwater USA private security firm were ambushed and killed in Fallujah on March 31, 2004. The bloody scene of the attack was filmed and broadcast around the world, creating a media spectacle that pressured US forces to respond.
The US launched Operation Vigilant Resolve (the first siege of Fallujah) on April 4th. Over the course of the next month over 700 civilians were killed and extensive damage was done to the city. However, the indiscriminacy of the US assault enraged international audiences, pressuring US forces to retreat from the city and reach a political settlement with Fallujah’s rebels.
The US withdrawal was widely celebrated in Fallujah and throughout Iraq and much of the Islamic world. Fallujah’s rebels were regarded as patriots and heroes, and many Muslims from outside Iraq began to travel to Fallujah to join the fight against the Americans.
The US began immediately to make preparations for a second operation to capture the city. Claiming that al-Qaida had taken control of Fallujah and was holding the city hostage, US forces launched Operation al-Fajr (the second siege of Fallujah) on November 7, 2004. This operation was considerably larger than the first, using 9 battalions, a total of approximately 12,000 soldiers. In the end it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 civilians were killed, and much of the city was turned to rubble.
With the strongest center of resistance in Iraq effectively defeated, the US went on to secure its control over the rest of the country and carry through its state-building project. After US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, most Iraqis were deeply dissatisfied with the new Iraqi government. In 2013 Fallujah became a leader in a nationwide, nonviolent protest movement (dubbed the Iraqi Spring) opposing the central government’s corruption and internal repression. Fallujah, like other Iraqi cities, held weekly demonstrations calling for reform, but the Iraqi government responded by sending security forces to attack the protestors repeatedly.
On December 31, 2013 the protestors were attacked again, only this time the decided to fight back. A new uprising began against the Baghdad government. A day later the first group of fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shab (ISIS) entered Fallujah. Accounts differ over how and when ISIS gained control of Fallujah. But the Iraqi government’s reaction was to besiege the city (the third siege of Fallujah). Fallujah remained under siege and heavy bombardment, with much US assistance in the air campaign, over the next 2 1/2 years; until Operation Breaking Terrorism, when Iraqi forces recaptured Fallujah from the Islamic state in June 2016. Throughout the course of this conflict, at least 3,521 civilians were killed (including 343 women and 548 children) and over 5,966 wounded (including 840 women and 1013 children) in Fallujah alone.
This brief overview of events a great deal, primarily for the sake of not diving into issues of interpretive controversy. One of the unique characteristics of this conflict is the centrality of information warfare, in which US forces tried to exert power over the way battlefield events were communicated to and understood by US forces. Thus, there was a great deal of disagreement about what happened and how to characterize events and actors. The US always portrayed their efforts in Fallujah as attempts to liberate the city from criminals and terrorists, while many Fallujans saw resistance against US forces as a legitimate struggle against an illegal foreign occupation.
We invite our readers to use this historical sketch as a guide along with the primary source materials. Our goal is not to tell you what the “correct” version of this story is, but to provide you with the tools to form your own opinions.