U.S. death toll rises as it digs in against Iraq's Shiite militias

At least 47 US soldiers were killed in Iraq in April, making it the deadliest month since September. Many of the casualties are a result of the recent assault on the Mahdi Army.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Caught: US Army soldiers detained a man last week in Baghdad's Sadr City suspected of planting a bomb near their patrol. The US said he tested positive for traces of explosives.
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The American military's participation in the war declared by Iraqi authorities on Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia – a fight that in recent weeks has been carried out through intense street battles – has led to an uptick in US deaths.

The month of April ended with at least 47 soldiers killed, the highest monthly figure since September, when 65 died.

"We have said all along that this will continue to be a tough fight," says Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, spokesman for Multi-National Forces in Iraq. "The increase [in US casualties] reflects the challenge our concerted effort [with Iraqi security forces] has faced as we work to keep Al Qaeda from reestablishing safe havens.… At the same time, we are acting alongside the government of Iraq as it goes up against these [Shiite militants] and criminals who are trying to establish themselves here in Baghdad and in other places."

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Though still less than half the level of the worst months of a year ago, the April figure is a jump from recent totals that had gone as low as 23 in December, according to the Pentagon and the website icasualties.org that tracks coalition deaths in Iraq.

The increase corresponds to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision in late March to gain control over Mr. Sadr's strongholds in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra where the Shiite cleric's Mahdi Army is most active.

568 Iraqi civilian deaths in April

Daily street clashes are also taking a heavy toll on Sadr City's civilians. More than 400 people have died in the neighborhood fighting, though Iraqi officials and local leaders differ over how many of those were civilians and how many were fighters.

Still, a tally of civilian deaths kept by icasualties.org shows April ended with at least 568 Iraqi civilian deaths, well below the 819 civilian deaths listed for March. The site reported that 108 Iraqi security forces were killed in April.

The US participation in the Iraqi government's siege on the Mahdi Army has drawn US soldiers into some of the most heated fighting in Iraq in more than a year.

One example of how the battle with elements of the Mahdi Army has played a role in the jump in military casualties can be seen in the US campaign to stop the mounting barrage of rockets and mortars over recent weeks on the Green Zone, the fortified area of Baghdad where US and Iraqi government offices are located.

For several weeks the US military has attempted to push the militants who formed rocket-launching teams out of the southern-most part of Sadr City. The Green Zone is easily within range of the smaller rockets and mortars – which the US says are mostly Iranian-made – that the militants have been firing from there.

But creating this rocket-free zone has required intense fighting. Just Tuesday, three US soldiers were killed when their patrol came under rocket fire in the area.

Even Baghdad's recent spate of sand storms has wreaked havoc on the US military's efforts to end the rocket and mortar barrages – and has played a part in the increased deaths. The US prefers to use helicopter gunships and unmanned drones to target the teams of rocket-launchers that generally set up in the night. But the recent storms have cloaked the city and grounded the US aircraft, requiring more foot patrols.

Fighting in Sadr City over April has grabbed the most attention, but even so, US military operations in Baghdad did not constitute even half of the 47 US casualties registered. Numbers from the Baghdad Multi-National Division show that at least 21 US soldiers were killed over the month.

One of the biggest killers of US soldiers continues to be the IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, that target US forces across the country. As General Bergner says, these weapons continue to hit US soldiers who are pursuing the operations of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)-affiliated insurgents. Though it went little-noticed, a statement from an AQI-linked group last month announced a 30-day effort to step up attacks on US soldiers.

The US military also claims that the particularly deadly form of IED called explosively formed penetrators, EFPs, are continuing to come into Iraq from Iran. "The principal threat is the special group criminal – an Iranian-sponsored group who frequently uses explosively formed penetrators with explosives we can trace back to Iran," says Lt. Col. Steven Stover, Baghdad division spokesman.

He notes that 35 of the 59 US soldiers killed in the Baghdad division since Jan. 1 were victims of IEDS.

The Iranians' role

US military officials in Baghdad have stepped up efforts over recent weeks to tie an increase in violence to Iran, displaying seized Iranian-made rockets and other weapons to journalists. They are also emphasizing when such arms are used by what they call "special groups," or Shiite militants they say have Iranian backing but no political ties in Iraq.

For its part, Iran is seen by most experts to be spreading around its support – to Maliki's Shiite government, but also to Sadr – the latter seen as perhaps a means of keeping the American military's hands too full to think about attacking Iran.

The spike in US military casualties and the continuing high level of Iraqi civilian casualties is leading some observers to question whether the surge of US troops, now being drawn down, had a lasting impact on bringing down levels of violence.

Some analysts say counterinsurgency missions can eventually lead to lower casualties – among both the military personnel carrying them out and the civilians they are coming in closer contact with – though often after a rise in casualties. That is what appears to have happened over the initial months of the surge, as more US troops went on more missions in closer contact with the Iraqi population.

US deaths rose over the spring and summer months of 2007, but then fell off sharply beginning in October. Sectarian violence also fell and civilian deaths decreased sharply.

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