BAGHDAD — Six U.S. soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing attack and two more in a helicopter crash in Diyala, the U.S. military announced Tuesday, as the eastern Iraqi province supplanted the notorious Al Anbar region as the most dangerous area outside the capital.
Those fatalities and two others announced Tuesday brought the U.S. troop death toll in May to 117, making it the deadliest month for American forces this year, and the bloodiest since the battles for Fallouja in April and November 2004, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in Iraq.
Violence in Diyala has been on the rise even before the Feb. 13 launch of the U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad. U.S. forces have found themselves battling multiple factions, including members of former dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, foreign-led Al Qaeda forces, and Shiite Muslim militias, which the U.S. military says use armor-piercing bombs.
After three years of single-digit fatalities in Diyala, the U.S. military death toll there climbed to 16 in January and rose to 22 this month.
Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said the rising toll resulted from the doubling of U.S. forces in Diyala, where they have battled Al Qaeda and insurgent groups that have moved there from Al Anbar province in western Iraq. He also linked the fatalities to the Baghdad offensive, which has seen an additional 28,000 troops deployed to the capital and its outlying areas.
"We knew that one of the outcomes of the increased pressure in Baghdad was you press them in the center, they ooze out the sides," Garver said.
"There is also pressure being put on Al Qaeda in Al Anbar as well, so we are seeing Diyala become the new hotspot," he added.
The farming province famous for its date and orange groves borders Iran and is home to Sunni and Shiite Muslims, thousands of whom have been uprooted by sectarian violence. The U.S. Army's Task Force Lightning deployed an additional 3,000-member brigade there in May, bringing its force to about 6,000, according to the military.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander in charge of northern Iraq, said in mid-May that he needed more soldiers. "I do not have enough soldiers in Diyala province to keep that security situation moving," he told reporters.
Among the reinforcements brought to Diyala was a Stryker battalion, but even these armored vehicles have proved vulnerable to bombs. Six U.S. soldiers and a Russian photographer were killed May 6 when an explosion ripped through a Stryker vehicle.
Garver said a final brigade due to be in place in Baghdad by mid-June could have elements shifted to Diyala if U.S. commanders decided it was necessary.
Although U.S. casualties weren't high in Diyala before January, the province already was a deadly place for locals. Assassinations regularly targeted mayors, tribal chiefs, police officials and judges.
The commander of the Iraqi army in Diyala, Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulail Hussein Kaabi, was relieved of his duties this month amid criticism for heavy-handed tactics against Diyala's Sunni population. Kaabi was reportedly picked for his job by the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia.
U.S. and Iraqi officials in January had attributed Diyala's rampant violence to their decision last year to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, which proved to be unprepared for the task.
The U.S. troop death toll in Al Anbar, meanwhile, has dropped dramatically this year as the western province's tribes have turned on Al Qaeda and cooperated with the Americans. In December, 47 U.S. troops were killed in the province, home to restive cities such as Fallouja and Ramadi. In May, that toll dropped to 16.
The number of U.S. fatalities in the Iraqi capital has not dropped even though insurgents have fled Baghdad and Al Anbar for Diyala.
Fifty U.S. soldiers have died in Baghdad in May, one shy of the record reached in April, according to icasualties.org, which puts American troop deaths at 3,467 since the war began.
Garver attributed Baghdad's toll to the deployment of additional troops and the fact that they are operating at a more aggressive pace. "We have more troops ... in more areas.... There is a greater chance of contact with the enemy," he said.
The cause of Monday's helicopter crash was unclear, the U.S. military said Tuesday. Few other details of the remaining deaths were released. The six soldiers who died in Diyala on Monday were killed by bomb blasts near their vehicles, and the two others were killed Monday in a bombing in Baghdad, military statements said.