Because of an editing error, an Oct. 24 article incorrectly said David Lapan, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, is a Marine lieutenant colonel. Lapan is a Marine colonel.
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Enemy Body Counts Revived
A surge in enemy activity this year has generated a corresponding increase in offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces -- and a rise in the number of U.S. military statements containing numbers of enemy killed.
High-ranking commanders also have contributed to the trend. In January, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, said U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 people last year. In May, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the killing of 250 of insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's "closest lieutenants" as evidence of progress in Iraq.
The Pentagon says its policy is still to try to avoid publicizing enemy body counts. But the U.S. military command in Baghdad does keep a running tally of enemy dead that is classified, and field commanders now have authority to release death tolls for isolated engagements in the interest, officials said, of countering enemy propaganda and conveying the size and presumed effectiveness of some U.S. military operations.
"For a discrete operation, it's a metric that can help convey magnitude and context," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
The release of such figures also can serve to boost the morale of U.S. forces and bolster confidence "that their plans and weapons work effectively," said Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, which operates in western Iraq.
Lapan said in an e-mail message that no "threshold" exists for deciding when to release an enemy death toll, adding that such decisions are made "on a case-by-case basis."
He indicated that the numbers are frequently derived from advance estimates of how many enemy fighters are at a targeted site, which explains why the death counts can sometimes get released so soon after an attack. Lapan said improvements in surveillance and targeting techniques allow for "greater certainty about the numbers of casualties we inflict in some situations."
In the case of the disputed Oct. 16 tally in Ramadi, Lapan stood by the figure of 70 enemy dead, saying the Marines "had information from a variety of sources that gave us confidence in the number of enemy fighters killed in the engagements."
Still, defense specialists such as Crane cautioned that enemy body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan are prone to inaccuracy and are of questionable significance. The murky nature of the conflicts, they said, make it difficult to know at times who is an insurgent, a criminal or an innocent civilian.
"There still are problems in identifying who is who, just as there were in Vietnam," Crane said.