The Battle for Fallujah is Crucial for Iraq's Future

Report Middle East

The Battle for Fallujah is Crucial for Iraq's Future

October 15, 2004 4 min read
Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
James Phillips is a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraq's interim government, on October 13th warned local leaders of the city of Fallujah that he would order an attack on insurgents there if they did not turn over foreign terrorists led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant affiliated with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist group. "If Zarqawi and his group are not handed over to us," he said, "we are ready for major operations in Fallujah."


This hardening of the interim government's policy on Fallujah is long overdue. By early in the year, that city of roughly 300,000 predominantly Sunni Arabs in central Iraq had become a sanctuary for assorted foreign terrorists, homegrown Islamic militants, diehard Baathists, and tribally-based insurgent groups. An earlier offensive spearheaded by U.S. Marines was called off last April when members of the former Iraqi Governing Council objected to the prospect of a prolonged American siege that threatened to undermine their nationalist and Muslim credentials.


Instead, the Governing Council proposed a stillborn agreement with local leaders from Fallujah that included the establishment of a local militia, ostensibly to restore the rule of law. The militia, led by former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, soon melted away after the threat of an American offensive was removed and many of its members defected to anti-government insurgent groups. Fallujah became a strategic base and staging area for launching terrorist attacks in Baghdad, less than 50 miles to the east.


The insurgents, emboldened by their success in Fallujah, have mounted a steadily escalating campaign of intimidation, kidnappings, and assassinations to undermine and demoralize the embryonic Iraqi government. In recent months, the insurgents have beheaded several government officials, including the leader of an Iraqi national guard battalion, and released videotapes of the beheadings that are posted on the Internet and sold for 50 cents in the Fallujah marketplace. The Governor of the Anbar province was forced to resign after three of his sons were kidnapped and threatened with death. Other government officials have succumbed to intimidation and defected to the rebels, including the police chief of Ramadi, who previously had survived three assassination attempts.


Meanwhile, a Taliban-like regime has seized control of Fallujah and imposed a harsh brand of Sharia (Islamic law) on the local population. A radical Iraqi Sunni cleric, Abdallah al-Janabi, has declared himself to be the "Emir" (prince or leader) of the "Islamic Republic of Fallujah." Much like Mullah Omar, who declared himself Emir of Afghanistan, Janabi works closely with foreign terrorists. He has formed an alliance with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the terrorist group Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War), which has close links to Al Qaeda. Zarqawi, a 37-year-old Jordanian, ran his own terrorist training camp in Afghanistan that was financed by bin Laden, and has been active in Iraq since 2002, initially with the suspected cooperation of Saddam's regime before it was ousted in April 2003.


Zarqawi's Tawhid group has carried out dozens of terrorist bombings in Iraq and assassinated scores of government officials, including Izzedin Salim, chairman of the dissolved Governing Council. Tawhid also is responsible for the deaths of many Americans, including Laurence Foley, an American diplomat murdered in Jordan in 2002; Nicholas Berg, an American civilian murdered in Iraq in May; and Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, Americans held hostage and murdered last month. Zarqawi himself is suspected of being the masked terrorist who decapitated Berg and Armstrong in two grisly videotapes released to the press.


Zarqawi's group, whose headquarters is believed to be in Fallujah, has recruited an unknown number of foreign Arabs (perhaps several hundred) to fight in Iraq and remains one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world today. If allowed to operate freely from Fallujah, Zarqawi's group will pose a mounting threat not only to Iraqis, Americans, coalition forces, and foreign civilians inside Iraq, but also to targets abroad.


Fallujah, long a bastion of support for Saddam's regime, now has become a symbol of resistance to the transformation of Iraq into a stable democracy. As long as it remains a sanctuary for foreign terrorists and Iraqi insurgents, it will be impossible to secure and stabilize the rest of the country.


After backing away from a full-fledged assault last April, the United States has maintained pressure on the insurgents in Fallujah through air strikes on their bases and safe houses. This apparently has led to growing friction between foreign militants and local residents angry at the risks they are forced to bear due to the provocations of the foreign Arabs.[1]


Prime Minister Allawi has sought to exploit this rift among the factions in Fallujah by threatening further military action unless the foreigners are forced out. After the successful October 1st offensive in the city of Samarra by U.S. and Iraqi forces, Allawi now has more leverage to apply to Fallujah. It is important that American and Iraqi forces stay on the offensive to tilt the psychological balance against the insurgents, keep them off balance, and disrupt their plans for future attacks. Today is the first day of Ramadan, a holy month in the Islamic calendar in which Islamic extremists often have chosen in the past to launch attacks. There is a good chance that Iraqi insurgents may seek to launch a Tet-like offensive to undermine the Iraqi government and the coalition forces inside Iraq.


The United States should strongly back Allawi's efforts to rout the insurgency in Fallujah. This time the Marines, backed by the Iraqi army and national guard, should complete their mission and relentlessly root out the insurgents as rapidly as possible. If the end result is another half-hearted encirclement and a pullback that leaves hostile forces in control, then the Fallujah insurgency is likely to metastasize into a cancer that will kill any hope for a stable Iraq.


James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] See Karl Vick, "Insurgent Alliance Is Fraying In Fallujah", The Washington Post, October 13, 2004, at


James Phillips

Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies