The Photograph

Our “Pic of Day” features a US Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines clearing a house in Fallujah, Iraq. The date is November 23rd, 2004.

He seems to have “acquired” a Soviet-made PPsh-41 SMG from an insurgent who no longer needed it.

The photo was taken during Operation Phantom Fury, sometimes referred to as the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a joint British, US, and Iraqi offensive in November and December of 2004 to clear insurgents, anti-coalition forces, and any other bad guys from the city.

SOFREP’s interpretation of Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004.

The Pivotal Battle of Fallujah: A New Perspective

In late 2004, the city of Fallujah became the center stage for an intense and protracted battle. Codenamed Operation Phantom Fury, this offensive symbolized the pinnacle of the Iraq War’s conflict against an insurgent uprising. A collaboration between the United States, the interim Iraqi administration, and the British forces, this campaign showcased the grit of both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army, drawing parallels to the intense urban combat witnessed during Vietnam’s Battle of Huế City in 1968.

Fallujah had previously been a hotspot in April 2004, the setting for an initial coalition effort to neutralize insurgents responsible for a brutal ambush that cost four Blackwater private military contractors their lives. The aftermath of this operation saw the city handed over to an Iraqi security force, which, over time, inadvertently fortified the city against future assaults.

When Operation Phantom Fury was instigated, insurgent groups dominated Fallujah, distinguishing it from earlier confrontations where U.S. forces primarily battled the remnants of Iraq’s Ba’athist military.

Setting the Stage for Battle

In early 2004, the responsibility for Fallujah’s security transitioned from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division to the 1st Marine Division. Tragically, not long after this shift, four Blackwater operatives — Batalona, Helvenston, Zovko, and Teague — faced a fatal ambush within the city, with gruesome images of the incident causing international outrage. While on-ground commanders saw this as a minor incident in terms of strategy, the political ramifications, primarily due to the widespread dissemination of the distressing images, were profound. This event led to a rapid response in the form of Operation Vigilant Resolve.

Though this operation culminated in a temporary pacification agreement, the city soon fell under the control of Muhammed Latif, a former Ba’athist officer, and his Fallujah Brigade. Over time, insurgent influence expanded, with international terrorist figureheads like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly using the city as a stronghold.

Bracing for Impact

Before launching the operation, the coalition forces meticulously encircled Fallujah, using overhead imagery to chart the terrain and leveraging Iraqi interpreters to bridge language barriers. Comprising roughly 13,500 personnel — including U.S. Marines, Army soldiers, Navy personnel, and supporting Iraqi troops — they stood poised to reclaim the city.

The U.K. played a strategic role, deploying the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch to assist with encircling maneuvers, although political hesitations limited their involvement in direct ground combat.

Opposing them was a formidable insurgent force. Fallujah, by now, was a melting pot of various insurgent groups, both local and foreign. From al-Qaeda affiliates to former Ba’athist fighters, the city’s defenses were fortified and meticulously planned. Using advanced weaponry and tactics, these insurgents had transformed residential areas into lethal traps.

Insurgent Composition and Strength
In April, Fallujah was occupied by about 500 “hardcore” and over 1,000 “part-time” insurgents. By November, estimates suggest that these numbers had doubled. Another estimate placed the number of insurgents at 3,000, though some insurgent leaders managed to escape before the attack. Fallujah was occupied by numerous insurgent groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, and the Secret Islamic Army of Iraq. Some of these groups were headquartered in Fallujah. About 2,000 insurgents belonged to groups like the Army of Mohammed (comprising ex-Fedayeen Saddam fighters), Ansar al-Sunna, and other smaller Iraqi factions.

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Insurgent Unity and Preparation
Uniquely, the Battle of Fallujah did not witness internal disputes among the insurgent groups. The fighters were a mix of both Sunnis and Shi’as. Soldiers from the Mahdi army fought alongside Sunni and Ba’athist groups against the United States. The insurgents, both Iraqi and foreign Mujahideen, fortified the city in anticipation of the attack. This preparation included digging tunnels and trenches, setting up spider holes, and creating a wide array of IEDs. Some houses were turned into traps, filled with propane bottles, gasoline drums, and other ordnance, all connected to remote triggers. Streets were barricaded, and insurgents were armed with advanced small arms, some of which were captured U.S. armaments.

Presence of Foreign Combatants
Military intelligence briefings prior to the battle indicated that coalition forces would face combatants from various countries, including Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria, alongside native Iraqis.

Civilian Situation and Evacuation
Most of Fallujah’s civilian population evacuated before the battle commenced, significantly reducing potential civilian casualties. It is estimated that 70-90% of the city’s 300,000 civilians evacuated, leaving 30,000 to 90,000 behind. The U.S. military encouraged this exodus with leaflets and broadcasts. However, there were reports that military-aged males were prevented from leaving or entering the city by U.S. forces. Some civilians, lacking the means to leave, remained behind. Jane Arraf, who was embedded with U.S. troops, mentioned that some families marked “We are family” on their doors, hoping to avoid being targeted.

Battle Progression and Key Strategies
The Battle of Fallujah was marked by significant events and strategies. The diversion began on the night of November 7th 2004, with U.S. and Iraqi forces attacking from the west and south. The true attack began with a massive artillery barrage on November 8th, followed by a coordinated assault on the city. Intense fighting persisted for days, with U.S. Marines and Special Operations Forces facing continuous isolated resistance. By November 16th, most of the fighting was characterized as mopping up pockets of resistance, but sporadic combat continued until December 23rd 2004. By late January 2005, U.S. combat units began departing, assisting local populations in returning to the heavily damaged city.

Valor and Awards
Several awards were given for valor during the battle. Staff Sergeant David Bellavia of the Army Task Force 2-2 Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor. Nine Marines received the Navy Cross, though Corporal Dominic Esquibel declined the award due to “personal reasons.” The Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to several units for their actions during the battle.

Aftermath and Reconstruction
The aftermath of the battle was significant. It became the bloodiest of the war and the most intense for U.S. Marines since the Vietnam War. Coalition forces reported 107 killed and 613 wounded. Estimates for insurgent casualties varied, but most approximations place the number killed between 1,200 and 1,500. The city itself suffered extensive damage, with a large portion of its buildings either destroyed or damaged. Fallujah’s status as the “City of Mosques” took a hit, with around 60 of its over 200 mosques destroyed, many of which were discovered to be storing insurgent weaponry. Residents began to return in mid-December with stringent identification requirements in place. Reconstruction was slow, focusing primarily on clearing rubble and restoring basic utilities. Only a fraction of the original inhabitants had returned by the end of March 2005.


The Battle of Fallujah stands as a testament to the complexity and intensity of urban warfare in the modern age. It not only showcased the mettle of coalition forces but also highlighted the evolution of insurgent tactics and the challenges of military campaigns in a densely populated urban environment.