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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The final elements of the surge of US forces announced in January are arriving in Iraq over the next week or so. Odierno will provide his assessment of progress in Iraq come August. In turn, General Petraeus, his boss, will provide an overall assessment to President Bush, Congress and the American public come September. But Odierno cautioned that it's likely that his assessment could well say that he needs more time to truly make a determination about progress in Iraq.

That sounds about right to T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and an expert on counterinsurgencies who said the violence was to be expected. He sees the effort as a long-term one that even now won't offer up any overnight solutions. "People shouldn't be looking for an answer by September," he says. "Counterinsurgencies are a decades-long progress."

There are other factors that are driving up the violence in Iraq right now.

Al Qaeda is growing stronger, and extremist militias like the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, are retaliating, analysts say.

If those factors and others contribute to a sustained level of violence over the summer, one may have to question if the approach under Petraeus is working, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

"If that continues, what it means is that you're not actually weakening them, but you're just allowing them to regenerate, and they are capable of doing so," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "If the intensity continues ... then it looks like a strategy that is ultimately futile."

Fatality rates are a dangerous metric to use to gauge success or failure in Iraq, anyway, he says, because there are so many other factors that could play into success or failure in Iraq. On the other hand, they do say something.

"It is possible that you could have progress and not see US fatality rates go down for awhile, but I think it's relatively hard to imagine that we would start losing 100 people a month for the summer and be able to term this strategy successful."

One place that continues to be much more peaceful is Anbar Province, a Sunni enclave to the west of Baghdad. There has been a nearly 50 percent drop in violence after tribal leaders turned against Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda, providing them with fewer safe havens than those groups had had there. In May, there were 400 incidents of violence or other attacks in Anbar, down from more than 810 in May 2006. In the provincial capital of Ramadi, there were 254 attacks in May last year, and only 30 this month, Odierno said.

But he conceded that Anbar is not as diverse as Baghdad or other areas, making it easier to quiet the violence.

"The success we've had in Anbar is tremendous, but that is actually one of the simpler places in Iraq," he said. "But it's a good start and we have to build off that."

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