BAGHDAD—January was the second deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Iraq since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May, according to a review of military and news reports.
A roadside bomb near the city of Kirkuk on Saturday killed three U.S. soldiers, bringing the total combat deaths for January to 40.
The high death toll came in spite of a decline in the frequency of attacks on U.S. troops, suggesting that insurgents have improved their targeting abilities.
The continuing high casualty count brings into question Bush administration assertions that conditions in Iraq are improving, and could provide ammunition to Democratic presidential candidates who are critical of the war effort.
In addition to the U.S. death toll, hundreds of Iraqis were killed or wounded in a spate of bombings in January, including one Saturday in the northern city of Mosul that killed at least nine and wounded more than 40.
U.S. Army and civilian officials in Iraq recently have begun citing a reduction in the number of attacks against soldiers as a sign of progress in the war. During November, the high watermark for soldier deaths when 69 were killed, there were 40 to 50 attacks a day, a figure that has plummeted to about 20, according to military officials.
The attacks, however, are growing more deadly. Roadside bombs in October, November and December, for instance, tended to kill one soldier at a time. In January, there were four instances in which one explosive device killed three soldiers, the highest such totals for any month since May, according to military reports.
The top Army spokesman in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, acknowledged that trend in a briefing Tuesday, saying, "The overall number of attacks is going down. That is not, sadly, stopping the number of casualties."
But when asked about the subject again Friday, Kimmitt seemed to reverse course. "As we've had a corresponding reduction in attacks, there has been a corresponding reduction in killed in action as well," he said.
Told that the numbers in January suggest otherwise, Kimmitt disputed that finding, saying: "I'm not going to get into a debate about the numbers."
In fact, an analysis of combat-related deaths showed that 40 U.S. soldiers were killed in January, second only to November's total of 69. The November numbers were inflated by the downing of three helicopters with heavy casualties, which added 39 deaths. If not for the catastrophic nature of those crashes, January would be the deadliest month since May.
The Knight Ridder analysis of the soldier deaths began with casualty reports from the U.S. Central Command, and was compared to a database that records releases from both Central Command and the U.S. Department of Defense. When there were discrepancies between the two, the names of the soldiers in question were cross-referenced with press reports of deaths and funeral services.
There were also some instances where a soldier was seriously wounded in action, and later died of those injuries. When it was not possible to determine the date of the actual incident, the date of death was recorded.
Because the military has not made a definitive report of the deaths public, there is some uncertainty about the numbers, which vary among media agencies and other organizations.
For example, the total number of deaths recorded in Knight Ridder's report was 255, six more than that of the Associated Press. The discrepancies, however, are not large enough to alter the trend toward increasing combat deaths.
Another U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Bill Darley, said earlier this week that the smaller number of attacks has not correlated to fewer body bags.
"Here's the bottom line. There's a decrease in attacks, but I think it's fair to say that the effective potency of the attacks that are going on has been maintained," he said. "We have observed the same number of coalition casualties as before."
Military commanders have given no explanation for the rising death toll, but have said in the past few weeks that they think the terrorist organization al-Qaida and other foreign fighters are trying to make serious inroads.
"They bring a different degree of expertise. And like anything else, it's a different enemy tactic," Kimmitt said. "We just have to learn what those tactics, techniques and procedures are, so that we can fight them and beat them."
While U.S. officials have continued to say publicly that the country is headed for success, the concrete walls and concertina wire have been rising higher and higher, especially in the capital. The entrance of the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, which was recently bombed, now has two new guard towers and an even more complex set of barriers.
Web sites with information on military casualties:
A KRT graphic (keyword: 20040130 USIRAQ deaths) moved Friday to go with this story. The numbers used in that graphic need to be revised to reflect today's combat deaths and slight changes in monthly totals. The correct numbers are: May-9, June-17, July-29, Aug-15, Sept-19, Oct-33, Nov-69, Dec-24, Jan-40, Total-255.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040130 USIRAQ deaths