Death ratio in Baghdad shifts

More U.S. troops are killed on high-risk duty in streets, as fewer in Iraq security forces die

October 04, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the second month of a security crackdown in the capital, U.S. military casualties appear to be rising as deaths among Iraqi security sources fall, according to U.S. military sources and analysts.

Yesterday the U.S. military revised its count of deaths in the capital Monday to eight -- the highest daily toll in a month. In September, 79 troops died nationwide, about a third of them in Baghdad, the military reported.

U.S. officials and military experts caution it is too soon to declare a definitive trend, but they said that recent increases could be attributed to U.S. troops' greater exposure to combat since redeploying in early August from more secure bases to Baghdad's streets. Their mission is to stem sectarian bloodshed between Shiite paramilitaries and Sunni Arab insurgents in the capital.

"When you're conducting operations and you've doubled the number of troops doing operations in Baghdad, there is more opportunity, as there is much more activity as they go into more neighborhoods, for attacks to occur and casualties to result," said U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson.

There are more than 15,400 U.S. troops actively engaged in operations in and around Baghdad, exposed to sniper fire and roadside bombs on a daily basis, according to the U.S. military.

As American fatalities increased, the number of fatalities among Iraqi security forces fell in September to 150 -- the lowest number since June and among the lowest monthly tallies in 18 months, according to the Brookings Institution Iraq Index.

Military experts said the divergent trends in fatalities between U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces could mean that Sunni Arab insurgents are targeting Americans more effectively while Iraqi police forces have grown in strength.

But the tolls also could renew criticism about the Iraqi army's recent failure to provide 4,000 troops for the Baghdad security plan.

Observers noted recent statements of al-Qaida in Iraq that reveal a strategy to shift away from Iraqi troops to U.S. forces.

Documents recovered after U.S. forces bombed a safe house near Baqubah in June, killing al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, indicated that senior al-Qaida leadership chided al-Zarqawi for targeting Iraqi civilians and urged him to focus on U.S. troops.

In September, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, alleged to be al-Zarqawi's replacement, issued an audio recording calling on al-Qaida fighters in Iraq to increase their attacks against Americans.

Al-Masri's tone "is much more in line with the central al-Qaida leadership's strategy than Zarqawi was," said Brian Fishman, a professor at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. "I think that part of the point of [his] statement was to tell his followers to go for American forces, and to take the focus off of Shiite leaders in government and moderate Sunnis."

But Fishman acknowledged that although al-Qaida is the most virulently anti-American insurgent force in the country, it is by no means the only one. The Sunni Arab insurgency is composed of many elements, including former members of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime. Iraq's National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie said last month that 80 percent of the insurgency was composed of local fighters.

The latest casualties come as U.S. strategy has shifted from a broad, national counterinsurgency to suppressing sectarian fighting in Baghdad.

The rising number of U.S. casualties is dwarfed by the tally of violent Iraqi deaths, which in July and August was the highest since 2003: more than 5,000 in Baghdad alone, according to the United Nations. The Iraqi government is planning to release September's death toll this week.

The high number of civilian deaths, many of whom are Sunni Arab victims of Shiite death squads, suggests that U.S. forces eventually might have to take on Shiite militias with the same vigor as they have fought insurgents -- a prospect that would likely lead to even higher U.S. casualties.

"As long as they are fighting the Sunni insurgents, you don't have a problem with the Shiites," said Anthony Cordesman, a Washington, D.C.-based military analyst. "But the minute they try to deal with the overall sectarian violence -- you can't do that without coming into occasional conflict with sectarian and ethnic elements who are not insurgents and not terrorists. These are things that don't offer easy choices to make."

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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