- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

April is becoming one of the deadlier months for U.S. troops in Iraq, perhaps dashing the hopes of commanders that a three-month-long downward trend in fatalities meant the insurgency was becoming less effective.

In the first four days of this month, 16 Marines and Army soldiers have been killed by hostile fire or in accidents, about half the total in all of March.

It is threatening to erase a more favorable trend: The first three months of this year experienced a 25 percent decline in the number of U.S. deaths, a drop the military credits to a more robust Iraqi security force and to better armor protection.

The number of fatalities in the first quarter is still far more than what the Pentagon expected at this point three years ago, after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Pentagon and private-group tabulations show that 148 American service members have been killed in Iraq this year as of March 31, compared with 199 in 2005.

Both tolls exceed the 119 who died in the first three months of 2004. But that was when the insurgency was not thought to be at its height in terms of its ability to carry out bombings and ambushes. The 31 killed in March was the lowest monthly fatality rate in two years. The numbers are based on Pentagon postings and on the private Iraq Coalition Casualty Count Web site.

The 2006 trend closely parallels the rise of Iraq’s security forces. They number 242,000, about 100,000 more than a year ago. Their police, army and commando units have taken on more missions and geographic sectors. And they are increasingly the target of attacks, perhaps drawing fire away from the 132,000 U.S. forces deployed in the country.

Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, who commands the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad, attributes the lower death toll to added experience for U.S. and Iraqi troops.

“The Iraqi security forces’ capability is getting better,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

The number of suicide bombings, principally carried out by al Qaeda terrorists, has averaged 24 a month in 2006, down from 50 per month in the summer, the command reports.

The number of wounded also is on a downward path. January 2006 showed 280 wounded, compared with 498 in January 2005. Pentagon’s numbers are not complete for February and March of this year. Overall, the number of those wounded dropped from 7,989 in 2004 to 5,944 in 2005. As of Tuesday, 2,344 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began.

Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the military’s chief spokesman in Iraq, said the insurgents and members of al Qaeda in Iraq have increased attacks on Iraqis and their security forces by 35 percent in the past six months.

“The enemy knows the Iraqi security force is increasing in capability, and he’s now targeting the Iraqi security force,” Gen. Lynch said. Of U.S. casualties, he said, “I know they’re as low as they’ve ever been.”


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