BAGHDAD, Iraq—The death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq passed 1,000 on Tuesday, a milestone marking the continuing high cost of the war 16 months after President Bush declared an end to major combat and more than two months since the nominal return of sovereignty to Iraq.
The total, which reached 1,001, included 756 combat deaths, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tallies U.S. military casualties in Iraq mainly from U.S. military news releases. Including combat and noncombat causes, 862 U.S. troops have died since May 1 last year, and 147 have died since the return of sovereignty on June 28.
The daily casualty toll has been slowly rising since major combat operations ended—it now averages more than two deaths each day. April was the deadliest month of the war, with 135 U.S. soldiers losing their lives during a broad uprising in central and southern Iraq. Fifty-four U.S. troops died in July, 66 in August, and 23 so far in September.
A total of 6,916 were wounded as of the end of August, of which 3,076 returned to duty within 72 hours.
Pitched battles such as last month's three-week showdown with a militia in Najaf, during which seven Marines and two soldiers died, have grabbed headlines. But months of attacks on or by U.S. forces elsewhere have added to the toll, even as fledging Iraqi forces shoulder more of the burden of quelling the tenacious insurgency.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan: "We remember, honor and mourn the loss of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom."
Army Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S military spokesman in Baghdad, said the rising death toll should be kept in perspective. Each death is regrettable, he said, but the overall toll is relatively small compared with how long U.S. forces have been in Iraq and how many service members have served in the country.
"I'm not sure it is a large number when you look at it in the big scheme of things," Boylan said. "The thing that concerns me is people equating success or failure with the number. The first casualty to the last casualty, whenever that will be, is just as important and shouldn't be pegged to numbers."
The latest deaths include four soldiers killed Tuesday in Baghdad and a soldier who died Tuesday from injuries received from a roadside bomb attack Monday on a convoy in Baghdad.
On Monday, the deadliest day for U.S. forces in four months, seven Marines were killed in a massive car bombing on the outskirts of Fallujah, a notorious hotspot of anti-U.S. sentiment about 40 miles west of Baghdad. Three soldiers also were killed in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The approximately 140,000 U.S. service members in Iraq are deployed across a vast region stretching from Iraq's northern border with Turkey, Syria and Iran, through the country's middle and into its southern provinces. The rest of southern Iraq is the responsibility of coalition forces led by Britain and Poland.
The coalition's mission is to support the fledgling interim Iraqi government's efforts to prepare the country for nationwide parliamentary elections by Jan. 31, including establishing law and order, Boylan said. U.S. military leaders have acknowledged that the insurgency is making their job difficult.
"It may not happen as fast as everybody would like," Boylan said. "It's hard work, especially when there are groups of people who don't want you in their area, for whatever reason."
Multinational soldiers were attacked about 2,000 times in August, or an average of 67 times daily, a record since the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, a military spokesman said this week. In July, the coalition was attacked about 1,000 times, or an average of 37 times daily.
Mortar rounds rain on military bases. Improvised explosive devices and car bombs blow apart military convoys. Gunmen armed with assault rifles, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades prey on Marines and soldiers patrolling in armored vehicles or on foot.
"It kind of runs the whole gamut," Boylan said of the perils facing U.S. forces. "There's still an active threat. We have to guard against that every day."
Soldiers such as Army Staff Sgt. Mathew Barker, whose 1st Cavalry company is stationed in an Iraqi National Guard building in northern Baghdad barricaded behind razor wire and earthen barriers, remain alert to the threats but try not to let the danger impede their mission.
"If you spend every waking moment worrying about what's going to happen, it isn't going to do you any good," Barker said. "Unfortunately, due to the nature of the operation—guerrilla-style tactics—you're going to have casualties. But we have a mission to accomplish."
The number of organized, "full-time" insurgents is hard to quantify but is believed to be between 4,000 and 6,000, Boylan said. Also, there are an unknown number of individuals occasionally participating in insurgent activities, sometimes for money, he said.
Other reported estimates, including from U.S. military sources speaking on condition of anonymity, have put the insurgency's size as high as 20,000.
Much of the danger to U.S. forces continues to be within, and emanate from, the so-called Sunni Triangle. The region north and west of Baghdad and bounded by the predominantly Sunni Muslim cities of Tikrit, Ramadi and Baquouba is an insurgent stronghold.
So hostile are certain areas that the military has designated some cities—including Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra in the Sunni Triangle and the southern cities of Kufa and Latifiya—"no-go zones." Yet, Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz said this week that U.S. forces might seek to gain control of Fallujah before next year's parliamentary election.
Such a move could add significantly to the number of U.S. casualties.
Barker, the 1st Cavalry soldier in Baghdad, looks on the casualty count with a certain degree of stoicism. "We're Army. This is our job. This is what we signed up to do," he said.
Yet he and his fellow soldiers also are keenly aware of the mounting death toll. Reading the Army's newspaper, Stars and Stripes, they can't ignore the rising number and the names of their fallen comrades-in-arms.
"Yes, it's a low figure compared to how many people have been here," Barker said. "But one death is more than enough."
(For further information see: www.icasualties.org.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040907 USIRAQ WARDEAD