The rate of American military fatalities in Iraq has slowed in recent months – but total deaths reached 4,000 on Sunday, underscoring the difficulties of the struggle to contain Iraq's deadly insurgent and sectarian violence.
Opponents of the Iraq war will probably seize on this latest milestone to argue that significant numbers of US troops should be withdrawn. President Bush now needs to reverse course on the conflict and give the American public an accurate accounting of the conflict's human and financial costs, argued Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey in the Democratic Party's weekly radio address.
But the US public has been paying less attention to Iraq as the domestic economy sours. The decline in attacks that has coincided with the US military surge has led many Americans to believe that the situation there is improving, at least for now.
"The net result will be that this milestone will not have the sort of political effect previous ones have had," says Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The latest fatality mark was reached after a roadside bomb in south Baghdad killed four US soldiers on patrol at around 10 p.m. Sunday.
In general, however, the pace of American fatalities has slowed as attacks have dropped since the beginning of the surge last year. It has taken nine months for fatalities to rise from 3,500 to 4,000, from June of 2007 until now. By contrast, the increase from 3,000 to 3,500 took six months – from December of 2006 to June 2007.
Prior to the surge's beginning, US commanders warned that it might cause casualties to increase. They based this assessment on the fact that surge strategy has involved placing US units in front-line stations in Baghdad neighborhoods.
In fact, incidents of violence have dropped about 60 percent since last June.
US commanders continue to say that progress is tenuous and that setbacks may lie ahead. Indeed, the last several weeks have seen a blip upwards in bomb attacks – a favorite tactic of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In the US, awareness of the level of US fatalities has dropped by half since last summer, according to a recent Pew Research survey.
About 28 percent of respondents said correctly that deaths were near the 4,000 mark, according to the survey, which was released on March 12. By contrast, 54 percent correctly said that fatalities were near 3,000 in August 2007.
The number of Iraqis killed in the conflict far surpasses the toll on US troops. Over 8,000 Iraqi security personnel have died in the conflict, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution. Civilian deaths have been far higher, though counts vary. Some put the total of Iraqi fatalities at 500,000, or more.
Of US fatalities, about 80 percent have occurred in attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq, or by Sunni or Shiite fighters. The rest died in helicopter or road accidents or other noncombat incidents.
The deadliest weapon faced by the US in Iraq remains the roadside bomb. Over 40 percent of fatalities were incurred in bomb attacks, according to the website icasualties.org.