WASHINGTON — The U.S. death toll in Iraq increased in January, ending a four-month drop in casualties, and most of the deaths occurred outside Baghdad or the once-restive Anbar province, according to military statistics.
In all, 38 American service members had been reported killed in January by Thursday evening, compared with 23 in December. Of those, 33 died from hostile action, but only nine of them in Baghdad or Anbar.
A total of 3,942 American service members have been killed in Iraq as of Thursday, according to icasualties.org, an independent Web site that tracks the statistics.
U.S. officials in Iraq said the death toll had risen because the military was targeting armed groups that had been driven out of Baghdad and Anbar by the increase in American troops.
In January, the military launched a major offensive in northeastern Diyala province, where nine service members were killed. In addition, the U.S. moved troops to the northwestern Ninevah province, which has become an al Qaida in Iraq stronghold. Seven service members were killed there in January, compared with four in December.
The fact that more Americans have been killed in those provinces has some fretting that the U.S. is fighting another round of "whack-a-mole," a term that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once used to describe chasing insurgents and terrorists from one part of Iraq to another.
This month, the American and Iraqi militaries launched an operation to rid Mosul — Iraq's third-largest city — of Islamic militants, a battle that could last months, a senior U.S. commander there said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the subject publicly.
Is the shift in casualties "an indication that al Qaida is on the run or that we are entering another phase of a long war?" asked retired Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Others argue that the drop in American deaths in Baghdad and Anbar is evidence that al Qaida in Iraq has been weakened, and that operations such as those in Diyala and Ninevah will weaken it further.
"Al Qaida knows the surge is working," President Bush said Thursday in a speech in Las Vegas. "They no longer have a safe haven in Anbar province; they're on the run."
However, Pentagon officials have said that although al Qaida in Iraq is weaker, they still don't know when they'll be able to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq below the pre-surge level of about 140,000.
American commanders in Iraq are even more circumspect. Nearly all agree that al Qaida in Iraq is weaker since the U.S. troop buildup began, but they caution that violence probably would return to places such as Baghdad and Anbar if American troops left.
Earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of Multinational Division Central, which includes Baghdad, warned against pulling out U.S. troops too quickly.
"If you've got an area that you've taken away and you walk away from it, 96 hours later the enemy is back — and he's intimidating the population (and) he's killing innocent people," Lynch said. "So we have to manage this transition very diligently."