YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Deadly Surge

The fatality rate for American troops shot up more than a year ago, and no political or military advance has been able to slow it.

October 26, 2005|Doug Smith and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

A year and a half ago, at the first anniversary of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the death rate for American troops accelerated. Since then, none of the political milestones or military strategies proclaimed by U.S. officials have succeeded in slowing the toll.

This is among the most striking conclusions of a Times analysis of the fatalities, which have reached 2,000, U.S. officials announced Tuesday.

Two other findings stand out:

* The number of deaths attributed to roadside bombs has sharply increased. The bombs have overtaken rockets, mortars and gunfire as the greatest threat to U.S. troops and were responsible for more than half of combat deaths in the last year.

* The war has taken a growing toll on National Guard and reserve units. Their soldiers now account for nearly one-third of the deaths, up from one-fifth earlier in the conflict.

The analysis compared the first 1,000 deaths -- from the beginning of the war in March 2003 through early September of last year -- with the fatalities since.

For the first year after the capture of Baghdad, the deaths of American soldiers accumulated slowly -- about one a day. Then, on March 31, 2004, shortly after the anniversary of the invasion, four American contractors were slaughtered in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallouja, west of Baghdad.

In America, the picture of contractors' charred bodies hanging from a bridge signaled to the public that the insurgency had intensified. In Iraq, the death rate for U.S. troops roughly doubled after that point.

Since then, the military has added armor to its trucks and has assaulted insurgent strongholds in Fallouja, Ramadi and the deserts of western Al Anbar province. U.S. trainers have worked to toughen Iraqi combat units, saying they hoped to get American troops off Iraq's streets and rely more on Iraqis for security. U.S. leaders transferred sovereignty back to Iraq and pushed for elections and the drafting of a constitution, which was approved this month by Iraqi voters. Saddam Hussein has gone on trial.

None of that appears to have substantially affected the U.S. death rate. Despite blips up and down, the overall trend since the Fallouja incident -- an average of roughly 17 deaths a week -- has continued unabated.

One hundred nineteen American troops died in the initial three-week campaign to capture Iraq. One thousand eight hundred eighty-one more Defense Department personnel, including five civilian Pentagon employees, have now died trying to hold it. About 15,000 American troops have been wounded, with about half hurt too severely to return to duty.

The soldiers, Marines and sailors who died came from every state -- more than 1,400 cities and towns, large and small, across the country.

About 200 soldiers from countries allied with the United States also have died, just under half of them British. Thousands of Iraqis on both sides have been killed as well, with the best "guesstimate" of civilian fatalities being somewhere between 26,000 and 30,000, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Many of the military deaths have resulted from roadside bombs. Among the victims was Pfc. Devin J. Grella, a 21-year-old soldier in the Army Reserve's 706th Transportation Company based in Mansfield, Ohio. Grella had been in Iraq several months when he died Sept. 6, 2004. He was driving a fuel truck as part of a convoy heading west from Baghdad to Fallouja, where supplies were being delivered to a group of Marines. The troops had left the capital after dark, said his father, Dennis Grella, 57. Devin Grella's vehicle was in the middle of the convoy.

The convoy was attacked twice on the road, and snipers shot at it. Then, a bomb hidden on the road exploded next to the driver's side of Grella's vehicle.

"The military told us that it was remotely detonated," Dennis Grella said. "They said it hit just about where he was sitting. The walls were punctured, and the tank caught fire. He wasn't able to get out of the truck." Devin Grella burned to death.

Improvised explosive devices, as American military officials call them, "are that hidden monster you're always aware of," said Sgt. Chip Lilly, a 35-year-old contractor from Staunton, Va. He serves with the Army National Guard near Tall Afar, a city of roughly 200,000 in northern Iraq.

"The more unnerving part of it is -- you know they're out there, but you can't find all of them," said Lilly, whose Humvee was hit the first time he drove through Tall Afar a few weeks ago.

A U.S. commander recently told reporters in Tall Afar about a school for bomb makers at which local Baath Party retirees with knowledge of engineering tutored insurgents, using chalkboards and manuals to explain the craft of designing and hiding explosives. In one instance, U.S. soldiers watched from a distance as an instructor showed about 30 people gathered outside a school how to bury explosives, said Col. H. R. McMaster, commander of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Los Angeles Times Articles