Friday, October 13, 2006

U.S. casualties surge amid worsening Iraq violence

U.S. casualties surge amid worsening Iraq violence
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military casualties have surged in Iraq in recent weeks, with U.S. troops engaging in perilous urban sweeps to curb sectarian violence in Baghdad while facing unrelenting violence elsewhere.

At least 44 U.S. troops have been killed so far in October. At the current pace, the month would be the deadliest for U.S. forces since January 2005. After falling to 43 in July, the U.S. toll rose in August and September before spiking this month. The war's average monthly U.S. death toll is 64.

The number of U.S. troops wounded in combat also has surged, with September's total of more than 770 the highest since November 2004, when U.S. forces launched a ground offensive to clear insurgents from Falluja.

Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, briefing in Baghdad on Thursday, attributed the rising casualties to insurgent violence that coincides with the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as well as more aggressive operations in Baghdad.

"We assume it will still get worse before it gets better. We expect violence to continue to increase over the next two weeks, until the end of Ramadan," Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the 15,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad are focusing their efforts in the sprawling capital on curbing death squads and others responsible for sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites that the U.S. commanders believe could lead to civil war if left unchecked.

"Each time you conduct operations like that, you put your soldiers at much greater risk," Caldwell said.

Army Gen. George Casey, top U.S. commander in Iraq, said on Wednesday the level of violence over the past few weeks has been the highest of the war. There are 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.


There have been 2,757 U.S. military deaths since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The U.S. death rate and overall toll still remain far lower than in the Vietnam War, when 58,000 U.S. troops were killed.

The Pentagon said 20,895 U.S. troops have been wounded in combat, many maimed by grievous blast wounds from insurgent roadside bombs, the leading cause of American casualties. At least 6,000 others have suffered wounds in accidents and other noncombat situations.

At least tens of thousands of Iraqis also have died. A study published this week estimated 655,000 Iraqis have died due to the war. Casey offered an estimate of 50,000.

Cato Institute defense analyst Ted Carpenter described a dilemma faced by the U.S. military on casualties.

"It can hunker down and concentrate on force protection, in which case the casualties always decline," Carpenter said, but Iraq's violence might spiral out of control.

"Or it can go out and patrol more aggressively, in which case the casualties go up dramatically. So basically it's a choice of poisons for American policy-makers," Carpenter added.

U.S. commanders have declared the fight for Baghdad as the main effort of the war, demoting the longstanding counter-insurgency fight in Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon said there has been a gradual increase in overall violence since the first year of the war as the insurgency grew in strength and sophistication.

But spikes in violence, he said, have been driven primarily by U.S. actions like the current operation in Baghdad.

On the current surge in casualties, O'Hanlon said: "We're not winning and we may even be starting to lose. That's what it should make you conclude."