Death In Iraq, Grief In U.s.

Bloodshed without battles

103 U.S. troops died in October, most from roadside bombs, skirmishes

Roadside bombs, skirmishes kill most U.S. soldiers

November 01, 2006|By Ellen Barry, David Zucchino and P.J. Huffstutter | Ellen Barry, David Zucchino and P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- October was a time of gritty skirmishes against hardened fighters religiously motivated to risk their lives during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

October's death toll, the highest for U.S. forces in nearly two years, came during a month without conventional battles or catastrophic helicopter crashes.

Rather, the 103 troops killed across Iraq were victims of a steady drip of assaults, primarily by Sunni Arab insurgents.

The number of attacks on U.S. forces spiked in October to unprecedented levels, U.S. military officials said.

"There has been a much more considered effort to specifically target coalition and Iraqi security forces," Maj. Gen. William F. Caldwell IV, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad as the bloody month wore on.

FOR THE RECORD - A front-page article yesterday about U.S. casualties in Iraq carried an incorrect byline. The article was written by Borzou Daragahi.
The Sun regrets the error.

"There has been a steady increase in the number of attacks specifically against security forces."

It was a month in which U.S. forces were shot by snipers, hit by rocket-propelled grenades or lured into ambushes and sprayed with fire from the AK-47s found in many Iraqi homes.

But improvised explosive devices left along roadsides remained the weapon of choice for Iraq's insurgency. Despite jamming devices, tactical adjustments and increased armoring of military vehicles, at least 52 of the U.S. casualties resulted from these bombs, detonated by remote control from a distance.

At least 43 deaths took place in Baghdad, indicating a shifting focus of the war away from the Sunni Arab heartland toward Iraq's capital "due to our more deliberate presence, more active involvement out there," Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad last week.

U.S. forces were more exposed than usual in Baghdad in an offensive aimed at taking back the streets from the forces of sectarian warfare - Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militiamen, some allied with officials of the Shiite-dominated government.

Though U.S. officials say the Shiite militias dominating Iraq's south pose the biggest long-term threat to stability, the vast majority of the Americans were killed in Sunni-dominated areas.

The deaths in Baghdad took place largely in Sunni-dominated neighborhoods on the west side of the capital city. An additional 37 U.S. troops died west of Baghdad, in the largely Sunni Anbar province. Sunni insurgents in the Euphrates River towns and cities of Iraq's desert hinterlands deem the U.S. an occupation force and the Baghdad government, now run by the nation's long-subjugated Shiite majority, little more than an American puppet.

The Marine Corps, unlike the Army, does not release information about the precise location or cause of casualties. Marine brass believe such information could help the enemy. The Marines, in public announcements, describe at least 18 of the October deaths simply as "hostile" incidents in Anbar province.

But most officials acknowledge that many of the Marine casualties in October occurred in Ramadi, the rundown provincial capital where insurgents have intimidated most Iraqi government workers into fleeing. Marines face daily threats from roadside bombs, snipers and even assaults on their fortified bases.

"It's combat nearly every day," said one Marine officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Ramadi is where the terrorists want to establish their capital. They're armed and they're relentless."

An additional 17 Americans were killed in Sunni Arab areas north of Baghdad, in and around the provincial capitals of Tikrit, Baqouba, Mosul and Kirkuk, where Kurds and Sunni Arabs now fight for dominance.

October's death toll was the highest since the month preceding Iraq's Jan. 31, 2005, elections.

Typical of the fatalities was Staff Sgt. Kevin M. Witte, 27, of Beardsley, a farming town in western Minnesota, along the South Dakota line.

He died Oct. 20 in Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle during a combat patrol.

Such roadside bomb explosions in densely populated urban areas shatter windows and cause panic among Iraqi pedestrians, drivers and residents. Wild gunfire erupts. Alarmed and confused, their eardrums shattered, U.S. soldiers open fire or receive small-arm fire from hiding insurgents.

Helicopters arrive to scour the terrain for culprits and attend to the wounded and dying. Bradley fighting vehicles block off the area as the injured are ferried off to high-tech medical facilities.

A dead soldier's comrades gather at outdoor ceremonies. The silence lingers after his name is read in a commemorative roll call. A trumpeter plays taps.

Ellen Barry, David Zucchino and P.J. Huffstutter write for the Los Angeles Times.

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