BAGHDAD, Iraq—Over the past six months, American troops have died in Iraq at the highest rate since the war began, an indication that the conflict is becoming increasingly dangerous for U.S. forces even after more than four years of fighting.
From October 2006 through last month, 532 American soldiers were killed, the most during any six-month period of the war. March also marked the first time that the U.S. military suffered four straight months of 80 or more fatalities. April, with at least 58 service members killed through Monday, is on pace to be one of the deadliest months of the conflict for American forces.
Senior American military officials attribute much of the increase to the Baghdad security crackdown, now in its third month. But the rate of fatalities was increasing even before a more aggressive strategy began moving U.S. troops from heavily fortified bases into smaller neighborhood outposts throughout the capital, placing them at greater risk of roadside bombings and small-arms attacks.
Roadside bombs have long been the No. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq. Since October, officials said, insurgents have been employing more sophisticated devices, with the most lethal results coming in Baghdad. Nearly 38 percent of military deaths since October have occurred in the capital, compared with 29 percent over the previous 12 months, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (http://icasualties.org), an independent, U.S.-based Web site that monitors military and civilian casualties.
At the same time, insurgents are leaving Baghdad to escape the crackdown, and in recent weeks U.S. and Iraqi troops have launched major operations outside the capital. Some of the heaviest fighting has occurred in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, where 44 American service members have died so far this year—more than in the previous 22 months combined.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the U.S. military's chief spokesman in Iraq, said last week that commanders had feared that the new strategy would bring greater casualties.
"It's something we anticipated could occur as we had more forces down inside the city in greater numbers than previously were operating there before," Caldwell said.
Military officials declined to say whether the increase was more or less than they'd projected, but said it was too early to call the recent uptick a longer-term trend.
"It's something we continue to watch very carefully," Caldwell said.
On Monday, the military announced the deaths of seven more American troops—three soldiers in Baghdad and two Marines in Anbar province on Monday and two soldiers in Fallujah on Saturday. The deaths brought the total number of American military fatalities in Iraq to 3,305, according to icasualties.org.
In the past, U.S. fatalities had a tendency to spike in months of heavy combat, then drop to lower levels in subsequent months. April 2004 and November 2004 were the deadliest months of the war for American forces, due mostly to intense combat in Iraq's western Anbar province.
But those high death tolls quickly dropped; for example, the death toll in April 2004 was 135, but fell to 42 two months later. The November 2004 toll was 137, but dropped to 58 in February 2005 and 35 the following month.
The past several months, however, have brought the longest period of sustained heavy casualties since U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003. December saw 112 soldiers die, the most since November 2004, and the subsequent three months registered 83, 80 and 81 fatalities, respectively.
Under the new security plan, Baghdad has supplanted Anbar as the deadliest region for American forces. Of the 58 deaths so far in April, 34 have occurred in the capital. The figures include all deaths, not just those that the military says occurred due to hostile action.
Under Gen. David Petraeus, coalition forces have opened 31 joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations and 22 neighborhood outposts in Baghdad to create an around-the-clock military presence on the streets. Officials said the plan is working. The number of murders and executions of civilians in Baghdad had fallen by 26 percent since the start of the year, Caldwell said.
Statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers from several provinces also show an overall decline in killings, though recent data indicate that the trend might be reversing. The number of corpses found in Baghdad from March 15 to April 14, for example, rose 26 percent over the previous 30 days, the McClatchy-gathered statistics show.
The shift in military tactics nevertheless has raised the risks to soldiers.
"We do what we can to mitigate that risk," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a military spokesman. "But General Petraeus' plan is to be out there in the neighborhoods as opposed to hunkered down on a FOB (forward operating base)."
Commanders are employing a similar strategy in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province located 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Insurgent groups have been moving into Baqouba, a fierce battleground for Sunni militias—including members of al-Qaida in Iraq—that are increasingly targeting U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
A battalion of Stryker soldiers arrived in March and has been trying to secure Baqouba through neighborhood outposts, regular patrols and coordinated military operations, sometimes with Iraqi troops, said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
"Over the last three to four months we've had several major operations," Donnelly said. "When you put more troops into a battle space, the battle space gets more concentrated and there's a more likely chance you run into the enemy and cause him to maneuver."
But the main killer of American troops across Iraq remains roadside bombs. Last fall, insurgent groups began using explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, molten slugs of metal that can pierce tanks and other heavy American armor.
Sixty-seven American troops died because of roadside bombs in December, the most of any month of the war.
"From October to December, no question (the rise in casualties) was directly attributable to EFPs," Caldwell said.
The bombs accounted for 50 of the 81 military deaths in March and 38 of the 58 deaths so far in April. Officials said the bombs remain the insurgents' favorite weapon.
"The enemy is trying to show that they're still a viable threat and that the Baghdad security plan isn't going to work, and that they have the ability to cause mass casualties," Garver said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.