BAGHDAD — Two months after a security crackdown began in the capital, U.S. military deaths appear to be rising, even as fatalities among Iraqi security forces have fallen, U.S. military sources and analysts said.
The U.S. military Tuesday revised to eight its count of American deaths in the capital on Monday, the highest daily toll in a month. In September, 74 U.S. troops died nationwide, about a third of them in Baghdad, according to the military.
U.S. officials and military experts caution that it is too soon to declare a definitive trend, but they said the recent increases could be attributable to U.S. troops' greater exposure to combat since redeploying in early August from heavily guarded bases to Baghdad's streets. Their mission is to stem sectarian bloodshed involving Shiite paramilitaries and Sunni Arab insurgents.
"When you're conducting operations and you've doubled the number of troops doing operations in Baghdad, there is more opportunity -- as there is much more activity as they go into more neighborhoods -- for attacks to occur and casualties to result," U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.
The more than 15,400 U.S. troops in and around Baghdad are regularly exposed to sniper fire and roadside bombs, the military said.
As American fatalities increased, the number of deaths among Iraqi security forces fell in September to 150, the lowest number since June and among the lowest tallies in 18 months, according to the Brookings Institution Iraq Index.
Military experts said the divergent trends in fatalities among U.S. and Iraqi security forces could mean that Sunni Arab insurgents are targeting Americans more effectively while Iraqi forces have grown in strength.
But the tolls also could renew criticism over the Iraqi army's recent failure to provide 4,000 troops for the Baghdad security plan.
Observers also noted recent statements by Al Qaeda in Iraq that reveal a strategy to redirect its attacks from Iraqi troops to U.S. forces.
Documents recovered after U.S. forces bombed a safe house near Baqubah in June, killing Abu Musab Zarqawi, indicated that senior Al Qaeda leadership had chided the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq for targeting Iraqi civilians and urged him to focus on American troops.
In September, Abu Ayyub Masri, alleged to be Zarqawi's successor, issued an audio recording calling on Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters to increase their attacks on Americans.
Masri's tone "is much more in line with the central Al Qaeda leadership's strategy than Zarqawi was," said Brian Fishman of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. "I think that part of the point of [his] statement was to tell his followers to go for American forces, and to take the focus off of Shiite leaders in government and moderate Sunnis."
But Fishman acknowledged that although Al Qaeda is the most virulently anti-American insurgent force in the country, it is by no means the only one. The Sunni Arab insurgency is composed of many elements, including former members of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime. Iraq's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said last month that 80% of the insurgency was made up of local fighters.
The latest casualties come as the U.S. military's focus has shifted from a broad, national counterinsurgency effort to suppressing sectarian fighting in Baghdad.
The rising number of U.S. fatalities is dwarfed by the tally of violent Iraqi deaths, which in July and August reached the highest point since 2003: more than 5,000 in Baghdad alone, according to the United Nations. The Iraqi government is planning to release September's death toll this week.
The high number of slain civilians, many of whom were Sunni Arab victims of Shiite death squads, suggests that U.S. forces eventually may have to take on Shiite militias as vigorously as they have fought insurgents -- a prospect that probably would lead to even more American deaths.
"As long as they are fighting the Sunni insurgents, you don't have a problem with the Shiites," said Anthony Cordesman, a Washington-based military analyst. "But the minute they try to deal with the overall sectarian violence -- you can't do that without coming into occasional conflict with sectarian and ethnic elements who are not insurgents and not terrorists. These are things that don't offer easy choices to make."
The U.S. military has not released data on the number of attacks against Americans by Shiite fighters, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they may be rising.
"We've seen attacks by various groups of extremists on both sides of the equation," Army spokesman Johnson said.
A senior U.S. military official said last month that Shiite militias were obtaining high-quality bombs from Iran that were occasionally used against U.S. and British troops.