Been there, done that. Twice.

Photographer: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Battle for Fallujah Matters. Again.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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The bombers came in over the Iraqi desert just before dawn, attacking the road to Baghdad so as to avoid civilian carnage in the city center or damage to the vital bridge spanning the Euphrates River. Later, the British crews switched from munitions to leaflets in Arabic, urging the small band of Iraqi rebels holding Fallujah to abandon their hopeless position. But no surrender came.

In all, the Royal Air Force dropped more than 10 tons of munitions to support the invasion by ground troops. A last ditch to turn the fight by the German Luftwaffe was brushed aside, and the garrison of 300 or so Iraqis surrendered. Not a single British life was lost.

Today, as Iraqi troops and their Iranian and U.S. advisers gear up to take Fallujah back from insurgents for the third time in a dozen years, nobody expects things to go as smoothly as they did on May 18-19, 1941. While the Islamic State forces there today are hardly more numerous than the Nazi sympathizers of the Iraqi military were 75 years ago, they are far more devoted to their cause. As at Ramadi and Tikrit over the last 14 months, they can be expected to rig deadly booby traps, take sniper positions on rooftops and give their lives in suicide car attacks.

More than any other city or town, Fallujah has come to represent both the shortsightedness of the American invasion of Iraq and the courage of U.S. troops in trying to salvage some kind of victory.

American forces first took the city without incident in April 2003, which was somewhat surprising considering its residents were mostly Sunni Arabs like the ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein. But tensions rose over the next 11 months, culminating in the fatal ambush by Iraqi insurgents of four U.S. military contractors, whose burned bodies were paraded around town before being hung on the Euphrates bridge.

It was that searing image of charred corpses that, for many Americans, was the tipoff that things were not going to get better in Iraq for a very, very long time. It was also the moment it became very clear that we were no longer fighting old-regime loyalists, but an altogether new insurgency among Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation of their country.

While U.S. reinforcements quelled the uprising by the end of April, the Baghdad government failed to restore order. Within  months, the insurgents regained the upper hand in Fallujah, led in part by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the radical group that would eventually become Islamic State.

So in late 2004, for a second time, U.S. troops spearheaded an efficient effort to cleanse the city of rebels. It was marked by widespread destruction of homes, the deaths of more than 50 Americans and 1,200 rebel fighters, and some of the best journalism of the Iraq war -- by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, and Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, among others.

And now we'll watch history repeat itself. Again. In January 2014, the city fell to Islamic State forces, who now hold about 50,000 civilians hostage. Last week, the Iraqi military began pounding suspected jihadist strongholds with artillery, urging residents to flee or raise white flags over their shelters. While the city is just 35 miles from Baghdad, it is an isolated pocket of Islamic State resistance and its strategic importance in the current war is relatively minor. This has led to some idiocy among historically challenged commentators who would have you believe that Fallujah is simply "a symbol of the utter pointlessness of U.S. efforts in Iraq." 

The upcoming battle is in fact hugely meaningful -- as a precursor to the looming effort to retake Mosul, the nation's second-largest city and a hodgepodge of ethnic and religious groups. So here are three things to watch for: whether the performance and coordination of the Iraqi military has improved since the uneven effort to retake Ramadi last December; whether the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are allowed (or force their way) into the fighting in the middle of the heavily Sunni city; and whether the shaky Baghdad government can establish a new civic administration that can restore basic services and keep sectarian tensions in check.

If we see the sorts of abuses of Sunni civilians by Shiite militias that occurred after the retaking of Tikrit last year, it will be that much harder to persuade Mosul's residents that government forces are approaching in a spirit of liberation rather than vengeance. And a botched Fallujah operation could even be the end of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who remains the best hope for a unified, multiethnic Iraq. In this sense, it may be nearly as important as the brief battle of 1941, which the military historian Robert Lyman notes could have cost the British their foothold in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.

The coming fight will also echo 2004. Shadid, who died reporting from war-torn Syria in 2012, and Karl Vick wrote 12 years ago that the battle for Fallujah had "less to do with battlefield success than with a cause infused with righteousness and sacrifice." For the Islamic State zealots now rigging homemade bombs in the city's basements, that motivation remains murderously powerful.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net