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U.S. Reports Insurgent Death Toll

THE WORLD

Long hesitant to release numbers, fearing comparison to the days of Vietnam, the military seems to be doing so now to appear effective.

December 02, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The enemy body count is back. Sort of.

U.S. military officials, in their regular news briefings in Iraq, have quietly begun reporting insurgent "KIA," or killed in action, after months of declining to detail the other side's losses.

The Army had long resisted inclusion of such figures, in part fearing comparison to Vietnam War days, when enemy casualties always seemed to dwarf U.S. losses even as the war was going badly. Inflated body counts eventually became emblematic of a Pentagon spin operation struggling to mask the bad news in Southeast Asia.

But the continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq -- November was the deadliest month with 111 members of the U.S.-led coalition killed -- has apparently contributed to a shift in approach.

On Monday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said 54 Iraqi insurgents were killed during a series of running battles in Samarra, north of the capital. He enumerated insurgent KIA in engagement after engagement during the Samarra clash.

The 54 reported dead was by far the highest asserted insurgent death toll in months. The total was heatedly disputed in Samarra, where residents said the dead numbered fewer than 10 and included civilians.

Kimmitt, the Army's deputy director for operations in Iraq, signaled the shift in policy a few weeks ago when he began regularly providing insurgent KIA totals.

The numbers typically amounted to a handful or fewer killed per battle, but on a few occasions half a dozen or more were said to have been slain in confrontations with U.S. forces. Most have perished in combat uncovered by the media.

Monday, officials were hesitant to talk publicly about the decision to provide details on insurgent dead.

But it seemed clear that the change was part of an overall effort to present American forces in a more dynamic and assertive manner -- not as a plodding occupying army taking steady casualties without inflicting damage.

"We've been killing and capturing bushels of these guys, but no one was talking about it," said one senior military officer, who asked that his name not be used but was delighted with the new approach. "This is a conscious change in policy.... For a while there it was beginning to look like only Americans were being killed."

The shift comes as tens of thousands of U.S. troops have mounted high-profile offensives across the nation, with tough monikers like Operation Iron Hammer and Ivy Cyclone II. Spokesmen have made forceful remarks about insurgents facing certain death or capture if they attack U.S. troops.

"Once you start shooting at us, it's 'Game on,' " said another military officer.

There is still no running total of how many insurgent combatants have been killed by U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Army is only providing day-to-day numbers for each fight in which an attacker is killed. Still, the insurgent losses tend to overwhelm U.S. casualty totals.

"We're doing it anecdotally," one official said.

"We don't want to have a regular box score. As soon as you get into the body count business, it gets to look like the Super Bowl. That's not what we want."

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