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Sovereign Iraq Just as Deadly to U.S. Forces

With attacks more frequent, the hand-over of power has not mollified insurgents.

August 31, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Two months after the U.S. handed sovereignty back to Iraq amid hopes of reduced violence, more than 110 U.S. troops have been killed and much of the country remains hostile territory. The toll of U.S. dead since the war began last year is fast approaching 1,000.

Although attention in recent weeks has focused on Najaf, where U.S. forces battled Shiite Muslim militiamen, most of the deadly confrontations for American troops in newly independent Iraq have occurred in the Baghdad area and the so-called Sunni Triangle to the north and west.

The concentration of attacks in those areas is a reminder that the fiercest and most organized opposition to U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed interim government continues to be in Sunni-dominated cities, such as Fallouja. Nationwide, U.S. forces are being attacked 60 times per day on average, up 20% from the three-month period before the hand-over.

The occupation of Iraq has technically ended, but a U.S.-commanded multinational force of more than 150,000 is still there, tasked with providing security to the fledgling government. Ubiquitous graffiti denouncing the continued occupation indicate that insurgents see little change in their enemy -- U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Soldier's name -- On two occasions in August, articles in the A section included incorrect spellings for the name of a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq. He is Maj. Douglas Ollivant, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

With Iraqi security forces still largely in training, U.S. forces continue to run raids and conduct patrols in many areas, maintaining a very visible presence, especially on the roads. Pulling back to the garrisons now, commanders agree, would open the door to even more chaos and violence.

Although U.S. authorities did not expect casualties to plummet immediately after the transfer of power June 28, American, Iraqi and international officials expressed optimism that restoring sovereignty and officially ending the U.S. occupation would curb the violence.

"We hope that this is going to be a true beginning, and those who are opposing occupation will now consider that opposing occupation is not necessary anymore," Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy who helped select Iraq's interim government, said on the day of the transfer.

But many of the underlying grievances that have stoked the insurgency, such as the presence of U.S. troops and the slow pace of reconstruction, remain. The number of fighters -- including loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein, religious militants and others dissatisfied enough to take up a gun or plant a bomb -- shows no sign of decreasing.

"There was a government in South Vietnam all those years ago, and we lost a lot of people back there," noted U.S. Army Col. Dana Pittard of the 1st Infantry Division in Baqubah, a zone of conflict northeast of the capital.

In August so far, 63 U.S. troops have died, and 54 died in July, the first complete month after the hand-over of power. In June, 42 American troops died, according to Associated Press and the Pentagon.

Neither July nor August come close to the death tolls of April and May -- 135 and 80 troops, respectively. Still, July and August rank among the deadliest months for U.S. forces in Iraq this year.

Overall, 974 U.S. troops had died in Iraq as of Monday, the vast majority -- 836 -- since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1 of last year, the Pentagon said. About 6,500 have been wounded. Since January, the majority of attacks on U.S. forces have come in the form of "indirect fire" -- such as mortar and rocket strikes -- along with homemade roadside bombs.

There is no reliable accounting of Iraqi civilian deaths, but some rough calculations top 10,000. The number of Iraqi military dead is in the 5,000 to 6,000 range, according to think-tank estimates cited by Reuters.

"There are munitions all over this country, remnants of the Saddam era," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director of operations for the multinational forces. "So you can't expect to rid the country of all its weapons in a month or two."

Although daily attacks are up, debate continues over whether the armed insurgency is growing. U.S. officials have stuck with an estimate from last year that the number of hard-core insurgents remains between 4,000 and 6,000, a calculation others call low. The military has arrested more than 40,000 suspected insurgents, most of whom have been released.

"We're losing more people because the resistance is just firing more shots at us," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who supported the decision to go to war. "They are just hitting us hard and everywhere. The reason they are effective is because they just have more people shooting at us."

Pittard in Baqubah, like many field commanders, is openly skeptical of official U.S. estimates of the insurgency's size. He puts the hard-core support at about one half of 1% of the Iraqi population of 24 million -- or about 120,000.

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