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America's Iraq strategy boosts US combat losses

If the high death toll in May continues beyond the summer, it could raise questions about US strategy.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2007


May's spike in the American death toll in Iraq is the result of the administration's new approach in Iraq – as much as it is the enemy's own "surge" of attacks against US forces.

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In strategic terms, it's called taking it to the enemy.

But analysts warn that if the number of US casualties continues at their current high level through the summer, that could raise questions about whether the strategy is actually working.

May has already been difficult – the third-deadliest month since the Iraq war began. In a candid briefing Thursday, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq, warned that the situation would be difficult in the months ahead. But the rising number of Americans killed comes as a result not only of insurgent activity but also from US operations in places that forces have not been before.

Such operations by US and Iraqi forces have had their impact, Lieutenant General Odierno said. Since January, 17,946 insurgents, terrorists, or other bad actors have been detained. Of those, nearly 1,500 are considered "high value targets." US and Iraqi forces have also killed more than 3,180 enemy fighters; another 1,016 have been wounded, he said.

Insurgents have reacted to the offensives and are now aggressively using improvised explosive devices as a defensive tactic.

"What we're finding is, the insurgents and the extremists use [improvised explosive devices] as their own little security and support zones and they use large buried IEDs in areas [where] we have not been before," Odierno said. "And some of them have been somewhat effective, which has raised our death toll."

Much of the violence is in and around Baghdad, where Odierno said the sectarian lines are blurry and where it can be difficult to allow political reconciliation to occur – and violence to decrease. But as hard as it is to see the glass half full at times in Iraq, reconciliation, he said, is the real answer to a stable Iraq.

"I will not be too optimistic, I will wait and see; I've been here too long to be too optimistic about anything we've moved forward with, but I do see this as an opportunity," said Odierno. "We're all tired of Iraqis dying, we're tired of Americans dying, and if we can reach out and conduct reconciliation and come across in a peaceful way, and move forward in Iraq, that is a much better way to do this."

The number of American casualties tell the story of the toll of war. As of Thursday, the Pentagon had confirmed 110 fatalities in May with as many as 12 more as yet unconfirmed . The two deadliest months occurred in April and November 2004, when major US offensives resulted in death tolls of 135 and 137 respectively.

Much of the recent violence is attributed to the new approach under Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. Under his counterinsurgency strategy – "clear, hold, and build," now with more emphasis on the hold and build aspects – US forces are more exposed than they were before, conducting more patrols and living in 58 decentralized bases around Baghdad called combat outposts and joint security stations.