The emerging Iraqi Security Forces have suffered nearly twice the battlefield deaths of American troops, a casualty toll that has convinced U.S. commanders they are building units willing to fight for democracy.
According to figures compiled for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ISF has recorded 2,603 killed in action, or KIAs, as of last week. That compares with a KIA figure of 1,506 for U.S. troops since the March 2003 invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein. The KIA number does not include what the Pentagon calls nonhostile deaths, such as occur in accidents.
A Pentagon official said the higher Iraqi KIA number is even more significant given the fact the Iraqi Security Forces, which are made up primarily of the army and police, was in its infancy stages in 2004 and had fewer troops carrying out operations and coming in direct contact with enemy insurgents.
U.S. commanders say the growing KIA number is proof that Iraqis are willing to die to create a democracy and rid the country of insurgents loyal to Saddam and terrorists led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi. Commanders say the 194,000-member ISF is increasingly in harm's way as troops take part in major battles, such as the one to capture the northwest town of Tal Afar.
"I have great respect for the Iraqis and what they're trying to do," Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top regional commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Sometimes we give the impression that they're not organized, they're not trained, they're infiltrated. More Iraqis have died fighting for Iraq against this insurgency than have Americans. And that deserves our respect and thanks."
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who plans to visit Iraq on a fact-finding tour, said the KIA number is a combination of Iraqi devotion and the fact they are not yet as well-trained as American combatants.
"You can't expect these people, even if they've gone through a year of training, to be ready to take on some of these insurgents, who are committed to their own death and want to take others to 'paradise' with them," Col. Maginnis said. "You have to face the fact they are not that seasoned. But they are getting seasoned."
The ISF hold the key to U.S. troops one day leaving Iraq. The Pentagon's mission statement of creating a democracy and an ally in the war on terror depends on the creation of a viable, 260,000-member ISF that can fend off, and eventually defeat, the insurgency of perhaps 20,000.
"We are fighting with them side by side on a daily basis, improving their capabilities day by day," said Army Gen. George Casey, who commands coalition forces in Iraq. "Our sense is that when we get them in the lead, they'll learn faster, and they'll improve faster, rather than following us around and watching us do what we do."
Defense officials say that despite the rising death toll, Iraqis continue to line up to join the ISF, which includes the army, police, navy, air force and border patrol. As of last week, the ISF numbered 194,000, including 75,000 army soldiers and 84,000 police.
There are now 100 Iraqi battalions, who each receive a combat readiness rating of one (the best), two, or three. Currently, there is only one battalion rated level one, which means it is able to conduct operations on its own.
The September battle for Tal Afar demonstrated that Iraqis are doing more, according to military officials. The United States sent in a force of 3,800 Americans, aided by a larger contingent of 5,000 Iraqis. Eight ISF personnel were killed.
The United States has suffered 425 non-hostile deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom, bringing the total death told to 1,931 as of yesterday. A Pentagon official did not have a non-hostile death count for ISF.