WASHINGTON — U.S. military deaths in Iraq fell to their lowest point in more than a year in September, figures show, a continuation of a four-month decline in combat casualties that has analysts debating why.
Sixty-four American service members died in Iraq in September, according to icasualties.org, which operates the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count Web site. Of those, 43 died from hostile action, according to the site, which tracks the casualties of U.S. and other coalition countries.
The last time the U.S. death toll was that low was in July 2006, when 43 troops died, 38 of them in hostile action.
This year, deaths peaked in May, when 126 troops died, 120 of them in hostile action. Since then, the number of troops killed by hostile action has fallen each month, despite predictions from American commanders that they would rise once the U.S. troop buildup was completed and the U.S. began more aggressive action. That buildup was completed in June.
The decline parallels a drop in casualties caused by roadside bombs, the No. 1 cause of deaths for Americans in Iraq.
According to icasualties, only 27 American troops died from improvised explosive devices, or IEDS, in September, down from the year's peak of 88 in May. The last month when IED casualties were that low was February, when IEDs claimed 27 American lives; 81 U.S. troops died in Iraq that month.
Those statistics include EFPs, explosively formed penetrators, which can pierce armor. Top military commanders in Iraq have said those devices are coming from Iran.
The U.S. began increasing the number of troops in Iraq in February, adding five combat brigades in a so-called "surge" strategy that was completed in June. U.S. troops then began a series of offensives in Baghdad and in conflicted areas north and south of the capital that American commanders had said would likely result in higher U.S. casualties.
Instead of rising, however, casualties have declined, leaving analysts debating whether the surge had succeeded in defeating insurgents or whether armed groups had simply left to avoid combat with American troops.
Frederick Kagan, one of the developers of the surge strategy, said the decline was to be expected. He said U.S. troops now have secured troubled neighborhoods in Baghdad and are either holding them or handing them over to their Iraqi counterparts.
"We are now in the holding phase," Kagan said.
But Loren Thompson, an analyst with the conservative Lexington Institute think tank, said there was little doubt that the decision by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his Mahdi Army militia not to fight the Americans was critical to the drop in U.S. casualties.
"I think in the case of the Shiites, they have figured out there is nothing gained by fighting the Americans because if they just wait it out, they will own the country," Thompson said.
When the surge began, the Mahdi Army lowered its profile in the capital, but began a push against its rival Badr Organization of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council for control of southern Iraq. Since the surge began, two southern provincial governors have been assassinated, many allege by the Mahdi Army.
U.S. military officials at the Pentagon have been hesitant to boast about the figures because of how volatile Iraq has been. Six months ago, U.S. forces were fighting Sunni insurgents in Anbar province. They now hail that province as a success, as tribesmen and residents have turned on al Qaida in Iraq and begun working with U.S. forces.
The change is reflected in U.S. casualties in Anbar; only nine deaths were recorded there in September, 14 percent of the total. In January, the month before the surge began, Anbar accounted for 45, or 54 percent, of the 83 American troops who died that month in Iraq.
In all, 3,807 troops have died in Iraq as of Monday morning, according to icasualties. Of those, 3,115 were killed by hostile fire. Of the other 692, most died in accidents or of illness.
The Web address for icasualties is http://icasualties.org. When viewing statistics at the site, be sure you have clicked selections that give you U.S. only numbers.