Military action in an urban area: the humanitarian consequences of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq
by Cedric Turlan and Kasra Mofarah, NCCI November 2006

Three years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US-led invasion of Iraq, was launched in March 2003, the humanitarian situation in Iraq is more critical than ever. The crisis is devastating for Iraqi civilians, in terms of death, injury, displacement, the denial of fundamental human rights and basic needs and the destruction of homes, vital facilities and infrastructure. According to UNICEF, 30% of children are malnourished, and WFP reports that rates of acute malnutrition have reached 9%. Medicines are in short supply in most governorates, and water and electricity are lacking, even in the capital Baghdad. Almost 1.5 million people are registered as internally displaced, making Iraq the sixth-largest displacement crisis in the world. Mental health is becoming a crucial concern as continuous stress and anxiety generate psychological vulnerability; a recent study has found that 92% of Iraqi children have learning difficulties. Meanwhile, access to these vulnerable people is very difficult. Since 2003, Iraq has become the world’s deadliest country for aid workers.

This article explores the humanitarian consequences of the US-led attack on the city of Fallujah in November 2004. In Fallujah, the primary concern was not to identify beneficiaries, since the whole population was vulnerable. The challenge was to localise and save them, and find the best way to distribute vital goods in a protected space.


The attack on Fallujah

Fallujah, 70km west of Baghdad, is in Anbar province. It had a population of some 300,000 people in April 2004. Known as the ‘city of mosques’, it is one of the most important cities of Sunni Islam in Iraq. It was also considered a hotspot in the Iraqi insurgency.

The first attack on Fallujah came in April 2004, when US troops surrounded the city, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Multinational and Iraqi forces encircled the city for a second time in October 2004, prompting thousands to flee to Baghdad and Ramadi. Operation Phantom Fury started on 7 November with the occupation of Fallujah’s General Hospital. This was one of the deadliest operations conducted by the US-led coalition since the March 2003 invasion, with house-to-house searches, street fighting, aerial bombing (including with white phosphorus), measures to prevent people from entering or leaving the city and the arbitrary detention of men aged between 18 and 50. The assault flattened a fifth of the city’s buildings, including 60 mosques, and heavily damaged many more. There were no official reports on the human impact of the operation.

Although many people fled the city before the assault was launched, many others remained, and were in need of humanitarian assistance in the form of water, food, shelter and medical aid (major hospitals were not operational). Access was the main issue, but there was no humanitarian corridor. Even Red Cross and Red Crescent convoys were prevented from entering the city: only one convoy was allowed into Fallujah, on 5 December, a month after the attack began. This was too late for most of the injured. Gaining citizens’ acceptance was the second main obstacle. Some humanitarian agencies had pre-positioned goods in the city, but aid workers who were not known to the citizens were considered spies. Residents were finally allowed to return in mid-December, but an estimated 36,290 families – 220,000 individuals – remained displaced in the area around the city.


Lessons learnt

Following the humanitarian intervention in Fallujah, NGOs working in the emergency identified several key lessons.

During the crisis

  • For the reliable and speedy flow of relevant information, it is important that NGOs develop contacts on the ground in urban areas.
  • To secure acceptance by the population, it is important that an initial distribution of goods is made, based on a rapid assessment of needs.
  • A more developed assessment should follow the first intervention, in order to gain a better idea of the type of aid required, as well as the capacity to respond to these needs. But over-assessment should be avoided through better coordination.
  • Involving the local population is crucial.
  • Religious actors are most likely to have access to the population, even during heavy fighting.
  • It is important to coordinate the delivery of supplies and assess needs as frequently as possible, in order to be able to coordinate future actions.
  • Coordination should include:
    • the exchange of assessment information and needs identification between agencies;
    • the exchange of information on actions taken, items distributed, quantities, the number of beneficiaries and their location;
    • any other relevant information in terms of contacts, locations, access, etc.;
    • information on relief stocks available for distribution; and<
    • transversal coordination between the government, local authorities, armed forces, NGOs and other organisations.

Better preparation for better intervention

  • Given that similar scenarios could happen in other Iraqi cities, contingency plans should be put in place in order to facilitate future interventions. These could include:
    • mapping the cities: health facilities, water stations, mosques, composition of the population (ethnic, tribal, religious);
    • mapping of surrounding villages and cities, to which IDPs may flee;
    • identifying which NGOs are working in that area or in neighbouring governorates, and what their capacities are;
    • holding contact information of potential partners at local level;
    • identifying storage facilities in or near the cities and pre-positioning goods; and
    • carrying out assessments of hosting communities.


Where are we now?

Today, the humanitarian crisis is more important than ever in Iraq, and huge military operations are being conducted by Iraqi and multinational forces in numerous urban areas, such as Tal-Afar, Al-Qa’im and Haditha. Regular military operations continue in Anbar province, Fallujah has not been rebuilt and not all its inhabitants have returned for fear of a third attack on their city. More than 300 families (2,000 people) are still reportedly displaced.

Because of the continuous violence, trust between local populations and aid agencies remains weak, and access is even more difficult with the new Iraqi authorities than it was during the coalition period. Foreigners are still not welcome in Iraq; the transfer of knowledge and responsibilities to local aid workers has improved the humanitarian response. So-called ‘sectarian violence’ reinforces the conclusion that the best way to deliver assistance to a specific community is through a partner in that community.

Generally, the lessons of Fallujah have not been learnt. Militaries and armed groups continue to contravene the Geneva Conventions. NGOs and other humanitarian agencies have not succeeded in regaining proper operational space. They continue to operate with a very low profile in an attempt to avoiding being targeted. And, given scarcity of funds and the short-term nature of projects, no real emergency plan is ready in case of another massive humanitarian crisis in an urban area like Fallujah – or Baghdad, with a population 15 times the size. The crisis in Fallujah was the first massive humanitarian crisis in an urban area in Iraq, and nobody was prepared to respond.


References and further reading

NCCI/Oxfam, Iraq Emergency Situation: Trends in Violence, Humanitarian Needs, Preparedness, 2 May 2006,

IDMC/NRC, Sectarian Violence, Military Operations Spark New Displacement, as Humanitarian Access Deteriorates, 23 May 2006,

UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 2006: Excluded and Invisible,

WFP, Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis in Iraq, May 2006.


Cedric Turlan is NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) Information Officer. Kasra Mofarah is NCCI Executive Coordinator. The NCCI website is at: