U.S. posts drop in Iraq war deaths

Commanders note increase in Iraqis taking over security

October 31, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- American combat deaths in Iraq have dropped sharply this month, reflecting what U.S. field commanders say is a steady increase in the number of Iraqis willing to take over their own security.

As of last night, 36 U.S. military fatalities had been reported in October, compared with 65 in September and an average of 83.6 per month since January. That is the lowest monthly total since March 2006, when 31 American troops died, according to icasualties.org, an independent Web site whose monthly counts include troops killed in action as well as nonhostile deaths.

Defense Department figures, which run about two days behind, list 3,129 Americans killed in combat in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, including 52 from Maryland.

With growing numbers of recruits joining Iraq's army and police, and tens of thousands volunteering for neighborhood watch groups, overall violence has dropped significantly, commanders said. Part of the reason is that many insurgents have stopped fighting U.S. troops and begun working with them, the commanders said.

These Iraqis are picking up and turning in more roadside bombs and establishing local control in areas cleared by U.S. troops, they said. Officials also cited the buildup of 28,500 additional troops ordered to Iraq by President Bush last winter as another factor in suppressing the violence.

Commanders and many analysts greeted the lower fatality rate as unalloyed good news but interpreted its meaning with caution, warning that the gains might be temporary.

"As I tell my paratroopers, we haven't won this thing - but we are winning," Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, a battalion commander, said in a telephone interview yesterday from his austere base outside Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. "I think we need to press the advantage right now."

In Washington, retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard said he was "delighted that we're having fewer soldiers killed, but I'm afraid we're in a kind of interim" period until next spring, when significant troop reductions are scheduled to begin.

U.S. casualties had soared earlier this year as troops under the buildup poured into Iraq. Under a new tactical plan devised by Gen. David Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, they deployed on street patrol and fought in dangerous neighborhoods, setting up forward outposts with Iraqi army and police. Iraqi insurgents pushed back against these aggressive new tactics, and U.S. casualties rose from the low 80s in the first few months of 2007 to 104 in April and 126 in May, before beginning to subside.

The experience of Balcavage's battalion, the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, shows why.

This summer his soldiers began working with local tribal elders to aggressively recruit Iraqis. To date, they've signed up about 1,480 into the Iraqi army, 400 into the local police and 2,200 as citizen security volunteers.

"That's about 4,000 guys we've taken off the streets," Balcavage said. He said many of them are former hard-core Sunni insurgents, but "they believe they're going with the stronger side."

Rocket and mortar attacks on his battalion, which reached a high of 45 in March, dropped to one in September, he said. Attacks with roadside or vehicle-borne suicide bombs dropped from 61 in March to six in September, and small-arms attacks declined from 39 in January to five in September.

Now, with Iraqi security forces moving in behind him to maintain order, Balcavage's 800 paratroopers are pushing into what he said is "the last stronghold" of the extremist Islamist group al-Qaida in Iraq, northwest of Iskandariyah.

"We went looking for a fight, and we're hunting them right now," he said.

Citizen volunteers pointed out six improvised explosive devices on the first day of the operation and turned in seven more in the next two days. The battalion's last combat death was in July.

"If you'd asked me 12 months ago if I'd ever talk such foolishness, no way could I have predicted this," said Balcavage, who enlisted in 1983 and won an appointment to West Point, where he was commissioned in 1989.

The defection that began a year ago from the insurgency in western Anbar province has brought mixed results. Though thousands have volunteered, many - especially Sunnis - have not been allowed into the Iraqi army or police by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

In northern Iraq, for example, 6,000 volunteers have been waiting for months, said a clearly impatient Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the 25th Infantry Division.

"The fact of the matter is, this thing is going to be resolved by the Iraqis," Mixon said. "We are giving them an opportunity to resolve these issues and to move forward.

"That opportunity is now almost going to come to an end," he said, referring to the U.S. troop withdrawals scheduled for next spring.

In Iskandariyah, Balcavage said, the volunteer citizens groups are "an interim fix" until they can be formally absorbed into the Iraqi army or police.

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