BAGHDAD, Iraq—June was one of the deadliest months of combat for U.S. troops since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 28 months ago.
At least 68 U.S. soldiers, Marines and sailors were killed by hostile fire in Iraq, the fifth highest number since the war began, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that compiles official casualty reports. The June total could continue to rise as troops die from wounds sustained during the month.
The deaths came as Iraq's insurgency continued fighting what increasingly appears to be a war with two fronts: one targeting the U.S. presence in Iraq and another aimed at stoking civil war through attacks on the nation's government, security forces and majority Shiite population.
In total, 1,744 U.S. troops have died in the war, 1,349 from enemy fire.
After a lull following national elections in January, insurgent attacks have grown more deadly.
The 68 troop deaths are the highest since November 2004, when 125 U.S. troops were killed by hostile fire, many during intense combat in Fallujah.
At the close of 2003, U.S. commanders put the number of insurgents at 5,000. On Thursday in Baghdad, U.S. Brig. Gen. Donald Alston said there were between 15,000 and 20,000 insurgents, though he said not all of them fight every day.
As of June 27, insurgents launched more than 70 car bombings during the month, according the U.S. military. While that figure was below that of the two prior months—at 81 each—it's more than any other month since the war began in March 2003.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the insurgency continues to evolve.
"The enemy we are fighting is a learning enemy and reacts to what we do just as we react to what they do if they change tactics," he said. "It is a continuous cycle of action, reaction, counteraction and counter-counteraction."
The number of daily attacks against troops with the U.S.-led coalition had dropped to the 30s after national elections in January, but they're now back at about 70 a day.
Attacks on Iraqis have also increased. A blistering round of car bombs and assassinations killed more than 1,675 Iraqis after the nation's interim government was seated April 28, according to icasualties.org.
"They've gone to more spectacular systems that can inflict more casualties per attack," said Alston, who added that the shift might be because insurgents can't sustain large ground attacks.
Two members of the Iraqi National Assembly have been killed since late April. Senior Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics have been assassinated. Insurgents have shot Shiites in their heads on the side of the road, and men in police uniforms have reportedly rounded up and tortured and killed dozens of Sunnis.
Although only a small portion of the population has joined the insurgency, the continued disenfranchisement of Iraq's Sunni minority has led to a continued supply of fighters, Iraqi analysts and politicians said. Sunnis, more than 5 million people, enjoyed favor under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and possess much of the nation's technical and military expertise.
Kamal Alaw, a Sunni politician in the northern city of Mosul, said U.S. officials misjudged the ability of their overwhelming military might to suppress the insurgency.
"The fighters are getting their strength from their (religious) beliefs; anyone who believes cannot be defeated by technology," said Alaw, an attorney and the head of the Mosul bar association. "Islam obliges Muslims to fight occupiers."
U.S. troops suffered high combat deaths in April and November 2004 when U.S. troops fought protracted battles against Sunni rebels in the western city of Fallujah. November 2003 and September 2004 each had 69 hostile-fire deaths.
To quell the violence in Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, and the rest of Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi troops launched three large offensives in the province in June.
At least 39 of the June deaths came in Anbar. And there were disturbing signs that the insurgency is active again in Fallujah.
After American forces retook Fallujah from insurgents in November, U.S. military commanders referred to it as the "safest city in Iraq."
But on June 23, six Marines and sailors were killed in Fallujah after a suicide bomber slammed his car into their convoy.
Earlier in the month, Marines found a series of underground bunkers used by insurgents just 16 miles away from Fallujah, where a U.S. military base holds thousands of Marines. The air-conditioned bunkers had four fully furnished living spaces, showers and a kitchen with fresh food. The bunkers were stocked with armament: mortars, rockets, machine guns, night-vision goggles, compasses, ski masks and cell phones. Marines also found at least 59 surface-to-air missiles, some 29,000 AK-47 rounds, more than 350 pounds of plastic explosives and an unspecified amount of TNT in a five-mile area around the bunkers.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050630 USIRAQ deaths