From combined dispatches
The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq fell in February to the lowest level in seven months, even as the overall death toll increased yesterday to more than 1,500.
The military said two U.S. troops died Wednesday in Baghdad of injuries suffered when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle. Another soldier was killed the same day in Babil province.
The latest reported American deaths brought the toll to 1,502 since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In February, 58 American troops died in Iraq, four fewer than in July, according to preliminary Pentagon statistics.
One of the reasons for the drop in U.S. casualties may be the decision by insurgents to increase their attacks on Iraqis. On Monday, a car bombing in Hillah, south of Baghdad, killed at least 125 persons. It was the single deadliest attack in the two-year insurgency.
Senior military officials say the war may be entering a new phase. Among the reasons:
The military has dramatically improved its ability to electronically jam remotely detonated roadside bombs.
The military is getting more intelligence tips since the Jan. 30 elections. Army Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that he thinks the elections prompted many Iraqi moderates to cooperate with coalition forces.
However, the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq has had an effect on military recruitment. Officials said yesterday that the Army signed up 27 percent fewer recruits in February than it had expected, putting it behind schedule for its full-year recruiting goal.
The Army had 1,936 fewer recruits than its February target of 7,050. It was the first time it had fallen short of a monthly target since May 2000 and is another sign that attracting young men and women has become more difficult.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said recruiting has become more difficult for a variety of reasons, including concern that once in uniform a soldier will be sent to Iraq.
An improving economy also makes it more difficult to attract young people, he said.
"Nobody's trying to do anything other than to accept the reality of it, and the reality is that we did not meet goals," he said. "They believe they can make it up for this year."
He said the Army is taking steps to address shortfalls, including putting more recruiters on the street and offering bigger bonuses to potential recruits.
The Marine Corps also is having shortfalls, although not as severe as the Army's, saying Wednesday that it had missed its goal for signing up new recruits for the second straight month in February.
"It is a challenging recruiting environment right now," said Maj. David Griesmer, spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Marines in January fell short of their monthly goal for new recruits signing enlistment contracts to begin serving within a year. The Marines missed the monthly goal again in February by more than 6 percent, Maj. Griesmer said.
In February, Marines signed up 2,772 of a target of 2,964 (93.5 percent). Some of them will join a total force of 177,000.
But Maj. Griesmer noted that in both months, the Marines reached their goals for new recruits actually entering boot camp. So a higher percentage of those who promised to enlist followed through and entered the Corps.
In year-to-date figures for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the Marines were 1 percent behind their goal for signing up new recruits and 2 percent ahead in sending recruits to boot camp.