BAGHDAD — The number of American military deaths in Iraq reached 1,000 Tuesday as fierce fighting erupted between U.S. forces and insurgents in Baghdad and Fallouja.
The grim milestone comes amid a heated presidential campaign in which the decision to go to war in Iraq has become a central and divisive issue.
President Bush did not directly comment on the tally, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cast the death toll as evidence that the U.S. was aggressively engaging terrorists around the world. At a Pentagon news briefing, he said that in the overall scheme of the Iraq war, the losses were "relatively small."
"Taking the offense ... of course has its cost, just as staying on defense has its cost," Rumsfeld said before the White House had announced the death toll. "And soon the American forces are likely to suffer the 1,000th casualty at the hands of terrorists and extremists in Iraq. When combined with U.S. losses in other theaters in the global war on terror, we have lost well more than 1,000 already."
He added: "If you think about the fact that we have thousands of patrols every day ... if you take all of those patrols, and look at the number of incidents, they're relatively small."
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been vigorously defending the war in recent days. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, has branded it the "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."
On Tuesday, Kerry focused on the gravity of the loss to thousands of loved ones. During a campaign stop in Erlanger, Ky., he called the 1,000th U.S. military death in Iraq "a tragic milestone."
"I think that the first thing that every American wants to say today is how deeply we each feel the loss, how much this means to all of us as Americans, the sacrifice that we feel on a very personal level," he said. "And our thoughts and our prayers are with the families that most recently have learned of a loss of a loved one, but also with all of those others who are still working through their pain."
A July CBS News/New York Times poll found that the rising death toll had resonated among voters. Asked if the result of the war in Iraq was worth the cost in American lives, 62% of respondents said it was not worth it, and 34% said it was. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
U.S. officials announced the deaths of six U.S. soldiers in scattered incidents Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, the military had reported eight troops killed, including seven Marines who died in a car bombing outside Fallouja.
Another U.S. soldier died early today when a military convoy hit a homemade bomb near Balad, north of Baghdad. Fighting Tuesday also killed scores of Iraqis and injured more than 200.
In Fallouja, west of Baghdad, U.S. Marines used tanks, artillery and aircraft to strike the town after insurgents opened fire on Marine positions, the military said. It added that the attack killed up to 100 insurgents.
In Baghdad, militants from radical cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia used rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, homemade bombs and small arms to target U.S. soldiers patrolling the Sadr City neighborhood, U.S. officials said. One American soldier was killed by an RPG.
The U.S. military responded in force. Tanks blocked streets, planes thundered overhead, and gunfire rattled through the air during a daylong battle in the slum's narrow alleys and trash-strewn thoroughfares.
The outbreaks of violence in Sadr City and Fallouja, as well as simmering battles in places such as Tall Afar near the Syrian border, are indicative of the instability in Iraq nearly 18 months after the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003.
Fallouja was supposed to have calmed down last spring, when the U.S. worked out a deal to pull its troops from the city and place the town under the command of Iraqi security forces. Now, members of those forces are believed to be cooperating with Sunni Muslim insurgents, many of whom are loyal to ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi officials have struggled to contain Sadr, whose army of poor, mostly uneducated Shiite Muslims has challenged the authority of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government.
The Sadr City fighting shattered a cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his followers while he supposedly was drawing up a political platform in preparation for elections scheduled for January.
A Sadr spokesman said U.S. troops and Iraqi national guard members had provoked the attacks after conducting searches in Sadr City for militia members and weapons. U.S. officials confirmed that during a raid Sunday they had discovered a large weapons cache that included mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making material.
"The American Army and the Iraqi government are responsible for what is happening in Sadr City," said Mahmoud Sudani, a spokesman for Sadr. "We have declared many times that we want Sadr City to be a peaceful place, but it seems that they do not want that."