Monday, October 16, 2006

U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Hits 53 So Far This Month

The New York Times
U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Hits 53 So Far This Month

BAGHDAD, Oct. 15 — Two marines were killed by insurgents in Anbar Province on Sunday, the American military command said, and three American soldiers died a day earlier in a bombing in southern Baghdad, bringing the total number of American troop deaths in Iraq this month to at least 53, an extraordinarily high midmonth tally.

At the current rate of American deaths — more than 3.5 a day — October is on track to be the third deadliest month of the entire Iraq war for American forces, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that tracks war-related casualties.

In a series of attacks on Sunday against Iraqi civilian and government targets in the northern city of Kirkuk, seven bombs, including three suicide car bombs, exploded within a few hours of each other, killing at least 17 people and wounding at least 73, according to police officials.

The rising American military death toll, which comes in spite of improvements in armor and other defenses, follows a recent decision by the American military to raise the profile of American troops in Baghdad and increase their combat operations.

Beginning last year, American commanders reduced the number of American patrols and pushed Iraqi forces to take over more responsibility for securing the capital.

But in late July, amid escalating sectarian violence that threatened to engulf the city and shove the country into full-scale civil war, American commanders decided to reverse their strategy, shift thousands of American troops to Baghdad from elsewhere in the country and abandon a plan to reduce troop strength significantly by the end of the year.

A cornerstone of the new approach has been the house-to-house sweeps of the capital’s most troubled areas, intended to ferret out militia networks, fighters and armaments. To date, the Americans, with Iraqi assistance, have swept eight districts.

Simultaneously, the American and Iraqi military have more aggressively pursued Shiite death squads, including elements of the Mahdi Army, the militia that loosely operates under the authority of the militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Since the neighborhood sweeps began at the beginning of August, guerrilla attacks — against military and civilian targets alike — have risen about 23 percent across the capital, according to American military statistics.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a senior military spokesman here, attributed the spike in attacks — and resulting American troop deaths — to the military’s retooled strategy to quell the city’s violence.

“We are out more aggressively engaged in the city at this point than we were just a month ago,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “Coalition forces are being much more active in going out and looking for these folks, these death squads and elements that are associated with the sectarian violence.”

According to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which collates statistics distributed in Pentagon press releases, the number of American deaths in Baghdad has sharply increased since the American-led crackdown began in early August.

That month, 20 American troops died in or near the capital, up from 12 in July and 15 in June. The number rose again last month, to 29.

Meanwhile, in Anbar Province, the western insurgent stronghold where the military has suffered its highest number of casualties since the beginning of the war, American troops have continued to face fierce resistance. At least 19 troops have died there this month, and 60 over the last two months.

Some troops were shifted from that desert region to Baghdad to bolster the new security push, further stretching American forces there.

The deadliest months for American troops since the beginning of the war have been associated with major offensives.

Some 137 American troops died in November 2004, the same month as the second siege of Falluja, when the Americans battled Sunni Arab rebels. In April 2004, a bloody month that saw the first siege of Falluja and pitched battles between the Americans and Mr. Sadr’s militia in Najaf, 135 American troops died.

In contrast, the American military has not conducted any major operations this month: the military has not initiated a new urban cordon-and-search operation for more than two weeks. Instead, it has focused on patrolling the areas already swept, officials say.

In recent weeks, the number of troops wounded in action, a figure that usually parallels the number of fatalities, has also seen a sharp increase. In a two-week period that began on Sept. 28, some 428 American troops were wounded, one of the highest fortnightly tolls of the entire conflict, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

In September, 776 troops were wounded, the fourth-highest monthly total since the American invasion.

In the multiple car bombings in Kirkuk, a city bitterly contested by several ethnic and religious groups, three suicide car bombers, including one driving a van packed with chickens and explosives, detonated their payloads throughout the city, killing 13 people and wounding at least 34, according to Maj. Gen. Turhan Yusuf, chief of the Kirkuk police department. One blew himself up near a girls’ academy, killing two school girls.

Four other bombs, including two unattended car bombs, killed four civilians and wounded at least 19 others, police officials said. Most of the bombs were apparently directed at Iraqi security forces.

In Baghdad on Sunday, the authorities recovered at least 30 bodies dumped around the city, an Interior Ministry official said.

Two bombs exploded near the convoy of the chief of financial affairs for the Interior Ministry, killing seven people, although the administrator escaped unscathed, the ministry official said. Another bomb exploded in the Amel neighborhood of the capital, killing one civilian and wounding two others, the official said.

In Tal Afar, near Mosul, a suicide bomber wrapped in explosives wandered into a local market and detonated himself near a police checkpoint, killing a child and wounding five other people, including two police officers, hospital and police officials said.

In Mosul, five members of a family were killed when gunmen burst into their home and opened fire, officials said, and gunmen assassinated Raad al-Haiali, a provincial official and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group.

The tribunal trying Saddam Hussein and his associates said on Sunday that it was postponing the date for verdicts from Monday, as originally planned, to Nov. 5, according to a senior court official who requested anonymity since he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Other court officials have said in recent days that a major reason for the delay is that after nine months of hearings, the five judges in the case have so far failed to reach agreement on a sentence for Mr. Hussein and appeared to be undecided between a death sentence for him or a penalty of life imprisonment.

The 68-year-old former Iraqi ruler faces a possible sentence of death by hanging for his role in the execution of 148 men and boys from the mostly Shiite town of Dujail after a reputed assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein in 1982.

Reporting was contributed by John F. Burns and Khalid al-Ansary from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Kirkuk and Mosul.