BAGHDAD, Iraq—More U.S. soldiers have died in combat in Iraq since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, than died during main phase of the war, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.
The death toll is a milestone, graphically illustrating the extended character of a war that many Americans believed was nearly finished after just a few weeks of combat. With a stubborn insurgency that is becoming more sophisticated and deadly in its attacks, it's also a sobering reminder of the distance left to go in Iraq.
The 115th combat death occurred on Monday—114 died prior to May 1—during the wave of bombings in the Iraqi capital. A typically terse statement was issued on Tuesday by the Department of Defense:
"Sgt. Aubrey D. Bell, 33, of Tuskegee, Ala., was killed in action on Oct. 27 in Baghdad, Iraq. Bell was at the Al Bayra Police Station when his unit came under small arms fire and an improvised explosive device detonated at his location. Bell was assigned to the 214th Military Police Company, Alabama National Guard."
Similar brief statements are posted almost daily at the U.S.-led coalition's press information desk in the Iraqi capital.
They offer only the barest of details—the soldier's unit, the location of the attack, a brief description of the circumstances, the type of weapons involved. Roadside bombs are the most common killer of U.S. troops these days, clinically referred to as "improvised explosive devices."
In the bureaucratic language peculiar to the military, this is the record of a nation's army slowly bleeding in battle.
President Bush declared this week's extraordinary bombing attacks in Baghdad—killing at least 35 people and wounding 230, mainly Iraqis, on Monday—as proof that terrorists and other anti-coalition forces are becoming desperate and on the wane.
Yet the facts are that combat deaths have been increasing in numbers, not declining, amid signs that guerrilla fighters are becoming better organized.
In retrospect, the U.S. approach in Iraq suffered from a number of miscalculations, unnecessarily alienating many people. Military planners correctly anticipated that they could defeat Iraq's army with a fraction of the troops it took to oust Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991, but they underestimated the number it would take to keep order across the country after the war.
Faulty intelligence fed largely by Iraqi exiles led planners to believe that most of the Iraqi army would not fight. Instead, U.S. soldiers and Marines faced some of their strongest resistance in southern Iraq. Hit and run attacks took a toll on supply lines. Tactical intelligence was poor. Most units had no interpreters, and interpreters remain in short supply today.
U.S. troops did little to stop the widespread looting that took place in Baghdad after the city fell in April. While much of the city was ransacked, the only government ministry that U.S. troops moved to secure decisively was the Oil Ministry, reinforcing the popular belief that the invaders were only after Iraqi oil.
"I think this was the biggest mistake the Americans made," said Dr. Zaid Makki, 30, an ear, nose and throat specialist who supplements his $120 a month salary by selling satellite dishes three days a week. "If they had just put one tank in front of every ministry here and stopped people from stealing, even the religious men would still be behind them."
The initial months of the occupation were characterized by inaction and chaos. Electricity was out for weeks. Security was nonexistent. Delivery of other basic services faltered. The first U.S. administrator, retired Gen. Jay Garner, was fired after only a few months.
His replacement, L. Paul Bremer, outlawed Saddam's former Baath Party and formally disbanded the 400,000-strong army, under a policy encouraged by powerful exiles, including Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.
Amer Hussain Fayad, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad, said that decision was perhaps the coalition's biggest mistake after the war because it put thousands of unemployed and angry men on the street.
Many of these men say they now feel humiliated, having to stand in line for days, waiting for a one-time stipend of $60. A riot erupted in early October at one pay station over what many Iraqis claimed was insulting behavior by U.S. troops.
"They call us donkeys," said Adnan Kharakuli, 35, a former Iraqi special forces lieutenant, after one riot earlier this month.
U.S. troops once regarded as liberators are now seen as occupiers. While the soldiers have done plenty of good in Iraq—repairing schools and hospitals, fixing water treatment plants and thousands of other small projects—the goodwill they once enjoyed is long gone in many areas, replaced by frustration and disillusionment.
"Before, I thought America was here to liberate us, but now my feelings have changed," said Dr. Talib Abdul Jabar al Sayeed, 62, a British-trained physician whose home was raided by mistake in August. "Now I feel like we have to kick them out. I would never have thought that people who came from America, the land of freedom and democracy and civilization, would do this to me."
Senior coalition officials and U.S. military officers continue to cling to the belief, at least publicly, that the Iraqi resistance is composed primarily of former regime loyalists, foreign terrorists and common criminals. They downplay the involvement of nationalist groups, which appear to be growing especially strong in Sunni areas. And they believe that the U.S. presence still has a majority of support among the public. Polls taken in Iraq in the last few months show a majority of respondents want the United States to stay, even though many distrust U.S. intentions.
The Pentagon's reports of casualties in Iraq can be found at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.