US soldier with machine gun in Battle of Fallujah

The First Battle of Fallujah: ‘We Hurt Ourselves in So Many Ways’

“I remember the trees,” retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia said about the day in April 2004 when he returned to his command post in Fallujah, Iraq, to find it had been attacked by insurgents armed with RPGs.

“The trees all around were cut in half, kind of like those old black and whites of the beaches at Tarawa in the Pacific,” he said. “Just blown to hell.”

Three soldiers on rubble in Fallujah.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

For days, Treglia’s company of Marines had been engaged in intense fighting deep in the Iraqi city, caught up in a grinding, messy showdown with upward of 1,600 enemy fighters who blended seamlessly into crowds of civilians and launched mortar shells and RPGs from concealed positions in mosques.

The day the fighters attacked the command post, Treglia received two M1 Abrams tanks. He was out with a tank crew at the time of the attack, trying to assist coalition snipers who were taking fire. He returned to find nothing but destruction and carnage.

“Four of my guys got hit,” he said. “And I didn’t know how bad exactly. My first sergeant—he got hit in the neck. And my gunny got hit in the arm. Two other guys were out, too.” They were lucky to be alive, he said.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

Several days before the battle in Fallujah began, Treglia had been preparing to lead a patrol in al-Zaidan, an area southwest of Baghdad, when someone told him plans had changed because “something happened in Fallujah.”

On March 31, Iraqi fighters, armed with RPGs and AK-47s, had ambushed and killed four Blackwater security contractors as they drove on a reconnaissance mission through Fallujah’s central district.

A crowd gathered, drawn by the exploding grenades and small arms fire. The contractors’ bodies were pulled from their vehicles, beaten, set on fire, and dragged through the streets toward the Euphrates, where the torsos of two of the men were hung from the girders of a steel bridge over the river while Iraqis cheered.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

Treglia, it would turn out, knew one of the murdered American contractors—Scott Helvenston, a former Navy Seal, a friend of a friend.

But that day he was focused on the new orders coming down in response to the attack. As Treglia recalled, the initial plan for his company was to conduct a few raids into the city, searching for insurgents and their weapons caches.

But those orders quickly shifted. Instead, they were going to be part of a full-scale attack on Fallujah, and his company was to help capture and hold the southern half of the city. 

“It was all street fighting,” he said, of those first days of what would later be known as the first battle of Fallujah, a series of “run and gun battles.”

A Stark Reminder

Twenty years on, that battle is viewed by many as a turning point in the Iraq war, serving as a stark reminder of the complexities and consequences of modern warfare.

It was a month-long conflict, in a year that by its end would see a growing Iraqi insurgency, an escalating sectarian civil war pitting Sunnis against Shiites, the disturbing images from the Abu Ghraib prison, and a second Fallujah battle, far bloodier than the first. Its impact in shaping discourse about asymmetric warfare, urban combat tactics, and the moral quandaries inherent in armed conflict has been profound.

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Retired Lt. Gen. John Toolan, who at the time was the commander of Regimental Combat Team 1, told The War Horse that even now, so many years after he led his Marines into the battle, he still has questions about the decisions made far above his head.

“It didn’t turn out very well,” he said.

After the contractors were killed, Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of the 1st Marine Division at the time, devised a plan to respond proportionately to the attack. As Toolan recalled, Mattis’ approach might take a few weeks before the ringleaders would be captured or killed, but with enough patience, the job would get done.

Things Are Going to Get Hot Before Long. I Hope and Pray I Come Out of It All Right.

But that’s not what the civilian leadership in Washington wanted. Embarrassed by the widely publicized images of the contractors’ bodies hanging from the bridge and comparisons in the media to Somalia in 1993, President George W. Bush and top White House officials called for a full-blown invasion of Fallujah. “Go in and clobber people,” the marines were told, according to an account of the battle in Thomas Ricks’ 2006 book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

Map of Baghdad with Fallujah in red.

The World Factbook, United States Central Intelligence Agency

On April 4, Toolan and his Marines launched Operation Vigilant Resolve, the first major instance of close-quarters combat by the U.S. military since the Tet offensive in Vietnam. The plan was for one battalion of several hundred Marines to take control of the southern half of Fallujah, while another battalion captured the northern half of the city.

Moving from east to west, the Marines planned to trap the insurgents hiding in the city against the Euphrates. Once those who murdered the Blackwater security contractors were captured or killed, and law and order was restored, the final stage of the battle would be to hand over security and control of the city to the new Iraqi police, the new Iraqi army, and the American-created Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC).

Pinned Down

On April 7, Treglia’s company was patrolling in the city, close enough to catch glimpses of the river, when they were ordered to stop at a four-lane road that ran north to south, codenamed Phase Line Violet. Treglia’s superiors wanted his company to wait until another battalion of Marines could advance west across the northern half of the city.

But because of contradictory orders coming from the battalion commander, one of Treglia’s platoons crossed to the west side of the road and attacked. They were immediately pinned down by heavy insurgent fire.

 U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

Treglia was trying to figure out what happened in the mix-up when he heard two lieutenants over the radio discussing what to do about a van they had spotted—an ambulance with a red crescent painted on the side.

“Don’t shoot the ambulance,” one lieutenant said.

The other lieutenant, who was pinned down with his men across Phase Line Violet, warned that he had seen Iraqi insurgents firing an RPG from the ambulance. He believed they were using it to transport fighters and weapons across the city.

Treglia’s Marines opened fire and disabled the ambulance, and a group of Iraqi men poured out of the vehicle and disappeared into a nearby building. A few minutes later, the men came out again, waving a piece of white fabric. The rules of engagement that had been briefed before the battle were clear: The Marines could not shoot.

Treglia turned his attention back to the platoon pinned down on the west side of Phase Line Violet.

“We couldn’t get my lieutenant out of there,” Treglia told The War Horse, “and we were taking fire from the mosque. We couldn’t move up at all.”

Treglia had called in air support to take out fighters holed up in the mosque. But the pilots, in F-16s flying above the city, told Treglia they couldn’t fire on a mosque without the battalion commander’s approval.

Map of phase lines in al-Sinafe industrial district. U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

Gen. Michael Hagee, the commandant of the Marine Corps, was the one to give it, barking into the radio, “All fire is authorized.”

Moments later, two 500-pound bombs rocked the mosque. The insurgent fire stopped. Everything went quiet. Treglia ordered another one of his platoons to fight across Phase Line Violet, to link up with the pinned-down platoon. The two platoons fought their way back across the phase line.

‘That’s When Every Gun We Had Opened Up’

The heavy fighting continued for days. On April 8, the day enemy fighters attacked his command post, Treglia was on his way back, the only member of the tank crew traveling with his hatch open, when an RPG hit the tank’s auxiliary power unit.

The blast knocked him momentarily unconscious. When he came to, he grabbed his M16 and pointed it toward the open hatch, where he thought an insurgent’s face might appear.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

“We needed to get that tank out of there, before it got destroyed,” Treglia told The War Horse. “I could hear the ding, ding, ding of the enemy rounds peppering the side of the tank, and it was only so long before another RPG would come our way.

“That’s when every gun we had just opened up on every window, every rooftop, every potential fighting position,” Treglia continued. “Then we got our asses out of there and got back to the CP.”

But he returned to devastation, the trees cut in half by shrapnel, his men injured. He assumed their wounds were so severe they would not return, he said later, but all recovered and returned to duty.

On the Static Line

Toolan, for his part, by April 8 believed that his Marines were on the cusp of taking back the whole of Fallujah.

But on April 9, less than a week after the fighting had begun, the order for a unilateral ceasefire came through. The origins of the order remain shrouded in ambiguity. Some have speculated that it came directly from the White House, while others have suggested it was initiated by Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Despite lacking formal jurisdiction over military affairs, Bremer’s apparent concern was that the escalating conflict in Fallujah was eroding crucial support for the occupation across Iraq.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

According to Thomas Ricks’ 2006 book, Fiasco: The American Military in Iraq, Gen. Mattis was furious at the order. Echoing Napoleon Bonaparte, he said, “If you’re going to take Vienna, take fucking Vienna.”

For weeks, Toolan and his Marines remained on standby, anticipating a return to battle.

Treglia said his platoons were frozen in place. “We know that ceasefire is coming. We’re still getting mortars dropped on us, still subject to sniper fire. We have not moved forward. We’re on the static line, defenses up, machine guns up.”

Following discreet deliberations among the U.S. government and its allies, however, the Bush administration made it known that it feared a renewed offensive could fracture the fragile Allied coalition.

The standoff finally ended. On May 1, the coalition turned over control of the city to the Fallujah Brigade, an 1,100-man force made up of local Sunni Iraqis and commanded by a former Ba’athist officer, Muhammad Latif. Toolan told The War Horse that it was thought that the idea for the brigade was “cooked up” by the Marines and the Central Intelligence Agency as an alternative to turning over control of the city to the new Iraqi police, the Iraqi Army, and the ICDC as originally planned. The hope was that the local Iraqis would work to unite the tribes within the Sunni Triangle, a densely populated region of Iraq to the north and west of Baghdad inhabited mostly by Sunni Muslim Arabs.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

U.S. Marine Corps, courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Philip Treglia.

But that’s not how it worked out.

Before long, the Fallujah Brigade seamlessly melded into the Iraqi insurgency, blurring the lines of distinction. And the brigade’s cache of 800 AK-47s, along with heavy machine guns and RPGs, found their way into insurgent hands.

“We wanted it so bad, that we got it bad,” Gen. Toolan said of a resolution to the conflict. “You can’t start a fight and then end the fight before it’s over. No one understood the impact that had on morale.”

In total, 39 U.S. service members died fighting in the first battle of Fallujah. Ninety more were wounded. According to The Modern War Institute at West Point, about 200 insurgents are believed to have been killed. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians also lost their lives.

Despite sustaining such heavy losses, Iraqi insurgents took to the streets of Fallujah to declare victory.

“We won,” one of them told a reporter for The Washington Post, explaining how they had succeeded in keeping the Marines from taking the city.

“We Should Just Know Better’

In a video made for Marines TV on the day he retired from the military, Gen. Toolan said he was probably “closest to my troops” when he was leading them in combat in Baghdad, particularly in the first battle of Fallujah.

“It was a tough situation,” he said on the video. “Commanding in combat is probably the most testing that you can probably ever ask of yourself. You know, you’re really tested because you know you have to put the people you love the most into harm’s way. That’s tough and that really wears on you.”

Toolan said that he still thinks about it, “reflecting on those people that I lost.”

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After the first battle for the city ended, Fallujah became a siren song for anyone who wanted to resist the U.S. occupation or capitalize in some way on the conflict and chaos. All summer long, Gen. Toolan said, foreign fighters poured into the city, itching for a fight. By the early fall of 2004, both sides knew that another battle, a bigger, bloodier battle, was looming. Six months after the first one, it arrived.

“We hurt ourselves in so many ways,” Toolan told The War Horse. “We should know better. We should just know better.”

This War Horse article was reported by David Chrisinger, edited by Erica Goode, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett handled SEO.

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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