As U.S. tactics get more aggressive, more troops die

More aggressive tactics make May a deadly month

May 30, 2007|By david wood | david wood,sun reporter

washington -- The aggressive new tactics spearheading President Bush's "surge" of troops into Iraq have contributed to one of the largest U.S. monthly combat losses since the war began, with the toll rising to 116 dead in May.

At the direction of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, commanders in the Baghdad region have been pushing their troops farther out into Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, establishing combat outposts and conducting patrols with Iraqi army forces and police.

Those tactics, they say, have dampened attacks on Iraqis by Iraqi death squads and religious militias. But the increased exposure of U.S. troops, and bold attacks by insurgents, have resulted in increased numbers of Americans killed and wounded.

The highest monthly toll for Americans was in November 2004, with 137 dead. Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the Pentagon has confirmed the deaths of 3,454 American military personnel and the wounding of 25,549. Thirteen reported deaths are pending confirmation.

The casualty numbers are from an authoritative private organization,, which uses Defense Department data.

The toll is likely to continue to rise, Pentagon officials said, as the last of five combat brigades moves into Baghdad in mid-June, completing the deployment of 28,000 troops to reinforce operations in the Iraqi capital. The United States has 150,000 military personnel in Iraq.

President Bush has said that the campaign to pacify Baghdad will be difficult and that an increase in attacks on U.S. troops is expected this summer as Petraeus prepares his assessment, due in September, of whether the troop increase is working.

"It could be a bloody - it could be a very difficult August," Bush said last week. "We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months [ahead]. We can expect more American and Iraqi casualties."

The fighting that killed 10 U.S. soldiers Monday was indicative of increasingly cunning insurgent attacks. According to preliminary reports in Baghdad, two crew members were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Diyala province north of the capital, and six soldiers in a quick reaction force were ambushed and killed as they raced to the crash site. Separately Monday, two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

According to the Pentagon, sectarian violence has decreased significantly this year, with 1,400 Iraqi civilian deaths reported in January, 800 in February, about 500 in March and in April, and a slight increase in May.

Recent events seemed to belie that assessment. Two car bombs killed an estimated 40 Iraqis yesterday, and a Shiite mosque was destroyed in Baghdad. An Associated Press survey indicated that at least 120 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country.

Four British security guards and a British contractor were kidnapped in Baghdad by about 40 gunmen who, dressed as Iraqi police, burst into a Finance Ministry office and dragged the men away in a convoy of 19 utility vehicles of the type used by Iraqi police.

"We are dealing with a smart, agile, thinking enemy, and I think we should be prepared for them to make a very strong effort to increase the level of violence in July and August," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week. "My hope is that anticipating it will allow us to thwart it."

The rising American death toll seems certain to reinforce growing public opposition to continuing the war.

"Our strategy for Iraq must be worthy of the sacrifices they have made," Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, a longtime opponent of the war, said yesterday. "We must honor them with an effective plan to finish their work and bring our troops home."

Bush has cast the war in Iraq as a critical effort to stop al-Qaida and other extremists from stifling democracy in Iraq and attacking the United States at home.

"They will do anything they can to prevent success," Bush said of the insurgents last week. "The danger in this particular theater in the war on terror is that if we were to fail, they'd come and get us."

Rallying public support could become increasingly difficult.

According to a CBS-New York Times poll released last week, about three-fourths of adult Americans said the war in Iraq was going "somewhat badly" or "very badly." The national survey also found that about three-quarters of the public believes the Bush administration's troop increase has made things worse or has had no effect on the violence.

"People are not casualty-phobic, but they are defeat-phobic," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist and author on national security issues. He and others say the public is willing to tolerate casualties only if there is a clear plan for victory that seems to be working.

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