Why such high troop losses in October?

US fatalities in Iraq surpass 100, in one of the deadliest months for Americans since the war began.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Caught in tough fighting in their mission to pacify Baghdad, US troops have ended one of their deadliest months in Iraq since the war began.

The US military announced Monday that fatalities in October broke the 100 mark. The number climbed to 103 by Tuesday. For American forces, only three other months have been deadlier since fighting began in March 2003. The worst month was November 2004 with 137 fatalities.

The White House, as well as some experts outside the government, say Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups deliberately are trying to inflict more casualties to influence next week's midterm elections and break American will.

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"They think we don't have the stomach for the fight," Vice President Dick Cheney said in a broadcast interview Monday.

Others say the rising toll is not so much the result of a deliberate decision by US adversaries as it is the cost of moving more US troops into Baghdad in recent weeks in an attempt to more fully control the capital city.

"The October boost in US casualties was almost inevitable the moment the US attempted to stiffen and replace Iraqi forces in an essentially hopeless mission," writes Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in his most recent analysis of Iraq.

Tet offensive comparison

The official Pentagon count of US deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom stood at 2,814 at the time of this writing Tuesday morning. Of these, 2,258 were listed as "killed in action," with 556 the result of unspecified non-hostile activity.

According to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution, 34.8 percent of US fatalities through Oct. 26 were caused by improvised explosive devices. Other kinds of hostile fire accounted for 31.8 percent.

In recent weeks President Bush has been among US officials to compare the situation in Iraq with the communist offensive in Vietnam that began in late January 1968 during the Tet, or lunar new year, holiday.

The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the communists in that they did not achieve any of their tactical goals. But by inflicting US and South Vietnamese casualties and carrying out operations throughout South Vietnam, the offensive shocked the US public. Support for President Johnson fell sharply after it began.

Discussing a column by The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, which itself made the Tet analogy, Mr. Bush told a broadcast interviewer this month the comparison might be apt.

"There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election," he said.

The Tet offensive is widely seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War, the period after which US voters began to sour on the whole experience.

But it was not like the current period in Iraq at all, argues Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who covered Vietnam as a reporter and wrote a book on Tet.

At the time the Tet offensive began, the US public was told the Vietnam War was almost over. Thus renewed fighting came as a tremendous shock.

In addition, communist Vietnamese tactics took the fight into almost every corner of the country, including previously quiet areas.

"It was as if the Iraqi Shiites took over the Green Zone in Baghdad," said Mr. Oberdorfer in a commentary for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Today there is not the tremendous domestic passion that roiled the US during the Vietnam years. If US voters were paying extra taxes to finance the war, or if they were being drafted into US forces, the country might feel differently, said Oberdorfer.

American will breaking?

Pham Van Dong, North Vietnam's premier, once said of the Vietnam conflict, "Americans do not like long inconclusive wars, and this is going to be a long inconclusive war, and therefore we will win in the end."

This comment might be apropos today, said Oberdorfer.

"The American people got tired of [Vietnam], got fed up with it, and I can see some of the same tendencies in today's situation," said Oberdorfer.

According to Mr. Cordesman, perhaps the most important trend in the violence in Iraq is, in fact, the nearly 12-fold increase in sectarian Sunni-Shiite violence that occurred between January and mid-August of this year.

Slowly, steadily Iraq has been moving toward civil war, in Cordesman's view, and US forces have in essence been caught in the crossfire.

"None of the data that are available ... show any radical rise in violence that can be tied to the American election, to some massive offensive to try to influence its outcome, or to some campaign in October that is tied to domestic American politics," writes Cordesman.

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