By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 31 -- March was the least deadly month in more than two years for U.S. troops in Iraq, but a surge in killings of Iraqi troops and civilians suggests that the overall death rate in the conflict is growing, according to military data.
U.S. forces suffered 30 fatalities in the past month, less than one a day, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. It was the lowest total since February 2004, when 21 service members were killed. Combat-related deaths during March numbered 25, declining for the fifth consecutive month. The March numbers could still rise because the military sometimes does not report deaths until several days after they occur.
But recent weeks have also been among the most lethal of the war for Iraqi civilians, police officers and soldiers, who were killed and wounded at a rate of about 75 a day, a rate three times as high as at the start of 2004. The U.S. military's count of Iraqi civilian casualties is likely far lower than the actual total, because many attacks go unreported.
The numbers reflect a pair of trends grown sharper in recent months, military commanders and analysts say: the insurgency and sectarian militias focusing attacks toward "softer" Iraqi targets, and a move by U.S. forces to cede ever more terrain and initiative to their Iraqi counterparts.
Insurgents are "now specifically targeting Iraqi security force members and Iraqi civilians," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said during a recent briefing. "We're fighting a cowardly enemy. And he's turned his focus in the last three months to the softest target he can find."
In Baghdad, where Lynch said the daily murder rate briefly tripled following the February bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad, police in the western district of Amiriyah on Friday discovered 24 bodies of men in their twenties and thirties who had been killed in recent days. All were handcuffed and appeared to be victims of torture, according to Brig. Mohammad Dulaimi of the Iraqi police.
Three other people were killed and two wounded in central Baghdad on Friday when a Katyusha rocket struck near Tayaran Square, in an area rife with mechanics and stores selling spare auto parts.
"I think the calculation on the part of the insurgency now is that if this gets into a war of attrition and significant civil conflict, they've defeated the U.S. anyhow," said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the Iraq conflict at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Asked about the decline in U.S. casualties, Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, which operates in a vast central region that includes Baghdad, pointed to the increased capability and responsibility of Iraq's army. Iraqi troops are responsible for securing nearly 60 percent of the Baghdad area, the military said in February.
"The Iraqi security forces are in the lead," Thurman said. "The Iraqi army has proven that they're trained and capable of protecting the Iraqi people."
Transferring territory to the Iraqi army is a crucial component of plans to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq over the coming year, and the period since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra has tested Thurman's assertion.
In the immediate aftermath of that attack, Iraq's police and army proved unwilling or unable to stop armed groups in Baghdad -- some of which operate in and among the Iraqi security forces -- from killing hundreds of people.
U.S. commanders in the field, some of whom were hurriedly transferred to Baghdad from beyond the city, said at the time they were reluctant to intervene too strongly because they did not want to undermine the perception that the Iraqis were up to the task.
U.S. units still occasionally do more fighting than military officials acknowledge. Lynch said in a briefing Thursday that in a controversial recent raid in northern Baghdad that killed 16 Iraqis accused of being insurgents -- many locals and Iraqi politicians said they were worshipers at a Shiite mosque -- no U.S. troops fired a shot.
About 50 Iraqi soldiers and 25 U.S. military advisers carried out the raid. But the American commander who oversaw the operation, Lt. Col. Sean Swindell, said in a recent interview that his troops had taken part in the fighting and were likely responsible for one or two of the 16 deaths.
Also on Friday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that freelance journalist Jill Carroll -- freed Thursday after being held by kidnappers for nearly three months -- had been warned by her captors that she would be killed if she cooperated with U.S. officials or traveled to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone after her release.
Citing information provided by Carroll's family, the newspaper also reported that her captors, who called themselves the Vengeance Brigades, had said they had spies in the Green Zone, the compound where the U.S. Embassy is located.
Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report.