U.S. war casualties make deadly surge

11 more troops are killed as October toll reaches 70

October 19, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq has reached 70 so far this month, a rate that if sustained would make October the deadliest month for Americans since the war began, military officials said yesterday.

Army officers in Washington and Baghdad attributed the spike in violence to Ramadan, which has become known for a sharp rise in sectarian killing in Iraq. The Islamic holy month ends next week.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have said in the past year that higher casualties are an indication of progress as U.S. forces push into hostile neighborhoods in Baghdad to root out sectarian death squads. But other analysts, noting a growing number of soldiers killed by small-arms fire, conclude that U.S. troops increasingly are caught in the murderous middle between Sunni and Shiite extremists in what has become a religious civil war.

"The killing is not incidental any more," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. "Suicide bombs are still a threat, but we are seeing an increase in close combat, meaning Americans are being caught in the crossfire, quite literally."

The spike in casualties, which includes an increasing number of badly wounded soldiers and Marines, seemed likely to intensify pressures on the Bush administration for a major change in strategy in Iraq as demanded by partisan critics. A similar call was recently suggested by such Republican stalwarts as Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, co-chair of a panel expected to propose a significant shift in U.S. strategy in Iraq after the general election.

"What about all these predictions we've heard about how Iraq is getting better, that we've turned the corner, that the violence is going down? Clearly this casualty rate means the U.S. approach is not working," said Lawrence J. Korb, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. Korb, a senior Pentagon official during the Reagan administration, is a frequent critic of Bush administration defense policies.

White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked yesterday whether the sharp increase in American battle deaths would cause Bush to rethink his strategy, replied: "No. The strategy is to win."

The president, he added, "not only understands the difficulty of it, but he grieves for the people who have served and served with valor." But winning, he said, "comes at a cost."

October has already become one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq, with 11 service members killed during a 30-hour period ending yesterday afternoon, the Pentagon said. Only 15 of the previous 43 months of the war have seen a higher death toll than the 70 Americans killed so far this month.

The deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq came when 137 troops were killed in November 2004, the month of a deadly offensive against insurgents in Fallujah. In April 2004, 135 U.S. troops were killed, many in heavy fighting against Shiite insurgents in Najaf.

The number of wounded troops has risen sharply as well, with 66 wounded between Sept. 28 and Oct. 4, rising to 80 wounded the following week and 111 the third week of October, according to Pentagon data.

Since March 2003, when the war began, 2,770 Americans have been confirmed dead by the Pentagon and 20,687 military personnel have been wounded in Iraq. An additional 13 deaths have been reported and are awaiting confirmation.

At a White House news conference last week, Bush said the rising casualty rate was due to Ramadan and the fact that about 25,000 U.S. troops, rushed into Baghdad in late summer, are on the offensive.

"We're on the move," Bush said. "We're taking action. We're helping this young democracy succeed."

Rumsfeld argued that most of the violence is centered in Baghdad and that "the violence levels are relatively low in almost every other part of the country."

But detailed Pentagon data show that significant numbers of U.S. soldiers and Marines are being killed and wounded in other parts of the country as well. More than half of the past week's dead were killed outside Baghdad, mostly in Anbar and Diyala provinces, where sectarian violence has been fierce. The Pentagon does not make available similar details on wounded personnel.

What has caught the eye of military officers and analysts is not only the rising casualty rate but also the cause of the deaths.

In this month alone, 30 Americans were killed by small-arms fire and 34 by homemade bombs, according to Pentagon data, a reversal of previous trends when the vast majority of casualties were caused by what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Army officers say they have been able to cut in half the casualty rate from IEDs since 2004 with improved detection and jamming techniques. But the increase in casualties from small-arms fire has more than made up the difference.

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