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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.