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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.

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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.

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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."