Thursday, April 29, 2004


This map from the Times of London gives a fair, but dated overview of the fighting in the Fallujah area. It is basically a lower resolution version of Global Security's 1:10,000 aerial photograph of Fallujah with an overlay. If you consider Fallujah a rectangle lying on its side, the map shows the US firmly established in the lower right hand about two thirds of the way up the box and more than halfway right to left. Although the Times map shows the US line still south of Highway 10 (an east-west road that cuts the rectangle in half about two thirds up) as of April 7, the northward march of clashes basically suggests that the Marines now hold the city everywhere south of Highway 10, that is, the lower two thirds of the city right up to the banks of the Euphrates.

It suggests that the enemy is basically confined to the northwest corner neighborhood of 'Golan', a slum area of winding streets. I would guess -- purely guess -- that the Marines hold the southern half of Highway 10 and everything east of the main road which leads up from the Mayor's compound to the northern city wall. The tactical motivation would be obvious. The Marines, and especially the snipers, would have clear fields of fire across these thoroughfares and use them to cut off the enemy stronghold from the rest of the city both to the east and to the south. To the north the Marines hold the 8-foot high railway embankment, which is about 200 meters parallel to the north city limits.

It was along Highway 10 that the Blackwater contractors were ambushed and their mutilated bodies hung from the Euphrates bridge not far from the 'Golan'. Now that fighting has revealed the enemy numbers and heavy armament actually present in town, it is obvious that the contractors escorting a convoy through Fallujah were as doomed as an enemy patrol entering the gate of Fort Bragg. The decision by the Marines not to rush in and recover the contractor's bodies, for they which they were heavily criticized, now seems absolutely justified in hindsight. Even a company strength unit would have been in serious trouble had they taken the bait.

With this basic layout in mind, we can now understand Darrin Mortensen's account in the North Country Times. The Marines must have raided south into the 'Golan' from their positions on the railway embankment and returned north. The second, less successful probe which resulted in the heavy engagement of a Marine platoon and the destruction of a mosque minaret was actually about 100 meters inside the city's northern boundary by cross reference to the Times of London map. It is around the northeastern corner of the 'Golan' that the recent fighting, including the AC-130 strikes have taken place. An article by the New York Post describes an engagement near the Fallujah railway station, which should be in the northeast corner of the 'Golan'.

April 29, 2004 -- Marines, backed up by jet fighters, attack helicopters and an aerial gunship, fought furious battles yesterday with Fallujah terrorists - who used women and children as shields. For the second day, black smoke and flames billowed into the sky and earth-rattling booms shook the Iraqi city as the fighting erupted on three fronts in the Sunni stronghold.

The clashes began when a Marine sniper unit came under fire from guerrillas unloading weapons from a cache near the train station. The rebels, using women and children as shields, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Marines. The troops took fire from three buildings and responded with machine guns, rockets and missiles. Video footage showed a Marine sniper, using a rifle with a long-range scope, firing at targets from behind a barricade. In the afternoon, the Marines called in two helicopters: a Cobra and a Huey gunship to rescue the sniper unit pinned down near the city's train station.  After the snipers were extracted, U.S. forces dropped 10 laser-guided bombs, including a 1,000- pounder, against buildings the terrorists were firing from, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, a U.S. military spokesman.

We can guess that the "snipers" were possibly USMC designated marksmen positioned south of the train station, between the rail line and the city, engaging the enemy on the northern city wall. The use of civilian human shields shows there are still significant numbers of noncombatants in the area and the removal of the weapons from a cache on the northern wall suggests they are repositioning weapons into a central redoubt deeper into the neighborhood. Although the hard core of resistance is penned up in the northwest corner, large areas of the city may harbor stragglers. The joint Marine-Iraqi police patrols will probably patrol the neighborhoods behind the forward USMC positions to establish Iraqi Governing Council control over these areas.

If my map analysis is right it reveals an astonishing success by the USMC. The enemy is now largely in a square about 2,000 meters on each side, with the river to one side and the open railway area to the other, facing the city streets both south and east. On the other hand, the enemy has been compressed to the point where a further advance becomes very dangerous. The Associated Press describes the neighborhood which the Marines must now take in order complete the job.

In the ancient slum at Fallujah's heart, Marines rely on high-tech equipment, night vision and the fearsome AC-130 gunship. But their Sunni foes have their own advantages - the labyrinth of alleyways that offer deadly ambush sites shielded by a civilian population. The Golan slum, home to some 40,000 people, has seen three days of intense combat, with Marines fighting mainly from the air with precision weapons. If they enter in force, it will mean deadly urban warfare. U.S. forces are so concerned that when Marines begin moving through Fallujah on patrols with U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces on Friday, they will skip Golan.

Golan - named after the strategic Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war - is the oldest part of Fallujah, its tight alleyways and old, ramshackle houses pressed between railroad tracks and the muddy Euphrates River. An estimated one-third of Fallujah's 200,000 people have fled the siege this month, but not many from Golan. Most are too poor to afford alternative housing.

Marines say Sunni Muslim guerrillas are also concentrated in that part of the city, and a key concern is to avoid harming civilians wedged in the middle. Troops on the northern fringe of the neighborhood stare down fighters just a street away. A satellite photo of Fallujah shows a city with wide roads, neatly-organized blocks of houses and open spaces, and in the northeast corner Golan, a knot of streets too narrow for tanks and heavy armor. To fight the insurgents but keep casualties down, U.S. forces have turned to the air, using laser-guided bombs and other munitions to hammer at insurgents holed up in buildings.

The urban terrain from the ground will look something like this (this is a link to photos taken at Jenin but it should be somewhat representative of the kind of construction and the crazy angles that Marines may have to deal with. The final reduction of 'Golan' may not be long in coming. The Associated Press, in an article entitled Marines Prepare for Fallujah Pull Back reports:

Marines in Fallujah began packing up gear and loading heavy trucks Thursday, saying they had been ordered to leave the southern industrial zone that they have held for weeks and pull away from the city. It was not immediately known if the move represented a withdrawal of Marines from their siege of the city or if other Marine forces were being rotated in to replace the withdrawing 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Those readers who have been following the map so far will immediately recognize that the southern industrial zone has been in the Marine rear for weeks. This "withdrawal" could just as well be a redeployment of units to the northern boundary of the city or preparation for a cross-river assault. But it might be a real withdrawal all the same for there are real dangers to assaulting the 'Golan'. The defended area is now small enough for the enemy to have turned it into a wonderland of explosive devices. The fairly light construction of homes within the slum means the walls are principally an obstruction to sight rather than to fragments and bullets. Combat in 'Golan' will be like a shootout in a cardboard maze. Enemy machinegunners can fire through walls or blast fragments right across fragile homes at advancing Marines.

But the physical fragility of the enemy redoubt may perhaps is the single reason the USMC might not need to assault the area at all, except in its most final, weakened stages. The battle for this urban maze will be largely a battle for line of sight as it probably has been from the beginning. The press reportage of USMC sniper-spotter teams has mentioned but not emphasized the fact that they possess imaging devices, comms and computers (and probably range finders) apart from their rifles. Their most damaging function has perhaps not been shooting (although that has been bad enough) as much as observation. One can almost imagine enemy movements being correlated from several observers onto a very detailed intel map. The physical characteristics of Fallujah, but especially the lightly built 'Golan' means that enemy safety depends utterly on visual concealment, not reinforced concrete fortification. Once an enemy position is known, it is extremely vulnerable to high angle downward attack. There is nothing between a Jihadi unit and an AC-130's Gatling guns except a sheet of galvanized iron roofing: he is dead once his position is known. I will venture to speculate that a subsidiary goal of the limited air strikes has been to open fields of view to observers.

That fact makes it very desirable for the US to encourage surrenders, both civilian and otherwise, because of the information they can provide, besides getting them out of the way. This goes a long way toward explaining why the Jihadis have chosen to keep their wounded in the fetid confines of the slum rather than allow them to be treated in a Fallujah hospital. They fear what may be revealed under questioning. But the dynamics of the siege mean that US will continue to gain the upper hand until a breaking point is reached. In a struggle in which visual information is paramount, the US will continue to throw a curtain of blackness over the enemy even as it enhances its own acuity. As the batteries of the enemy night vision equipment and radios drain out or are lost, the defense will grow ever more blind. The moon will begin to wane in 10 days and the hopes of the Jihadis with it.