By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 4 -- Thirteen U.S. soldiers have been killed in Baghdad since Monday, the American military reported, registering the highest three-day death toll for U.S. forces in the capital since the start of the war.
The latest losses -- four soldiers who were killed at 9 a.m. Wednesday by small-arms fire -- are part of a recent spike in violent attacks against U.S. forces that have claimed the lives of at least 24 soldiers and Marines in Iraq since Saturday, the military said.
The number of planted bombs is "at an all-time high," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a military spokesman, defying American efforts to stanch the vicious sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad that threatens to plunge the country into civil war.
"This has been a hard week for U.S. forces," Caldwell said. "Unfortunately, as expected, attacks have steadily increased in Baghdad during these past weeks." Independent databases showed the three-day toll for American troops to be the highest in Baghdad so far.
U.S. military officials said the surge in violence could be partly attributed to the increased exposure of American forces as they patrol the dangerous streets of Baghdad to try to quell reprisal killings between Shiites and Sunnis. The number of troops in the capital has been doubled since June to support the Iraqi government's new security plan, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, another military spokesman.
"When you go into bad neighborhoods, you'll have more attacks," said Lt. Col. James A. Gavrilis, a Special Forces officer and expert on the Iraqi insurgency. "If we have more people in one area, there will be an opportunity." He said enemy fighters "are reacting to an opportunity to attack."
Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said another likely cause for the spike in American troop deaths was a recent call by the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, encouraging Iraqis to "eliminate the infidels and the apostates" during the current holy month of Ramadan.
Seventy-four soldiers and Marines were killed in Iraq in September, representing the highest monthly toll since April, when 76 died, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
Army Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the Multinational Division Baghdad, said two weeks ago that attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces in Baghdad had reached an average of 42 a day -- with about six causing casualties or equipment damage -- up from 36 or 38 attacks.
"Why are we seeing an increase in attacks?" he said. "Well, we have twice as many forces operating throughout the city now. We're challenging the anti-Iraqi forces where they live and operate."
The disclosure of heavy American losses came on another day of horrific violence for Iraqis, with at least 59 people killed in separate incidents across the country, Iraqi police said. The single deadliest attack took place at 11 a.m. in Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, when a suicide bomber blew up his car at an Iraqi army base, killing at least 19 people and wounding 10, according to a police official.
Caldwell also announced yesterday that an entire Iraqi police brigade -- comprising an estimated 800 to 1,200 officers -- had been pulled out of service and placed under investigation for alleged complicity with death squads. On Sunday, gunmen burst into a food factory in Amil, a Baghdad neighborhood under the brigade's control, and kidnapped 26 workers.
"There is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when, in fact, they were supposed to have been impeding their movement," Caldwell said. "The government of Iraq had lost trust and confidence in the 8th Brigade, 2nd National Police Division's ability to serve the public due to their poor performance and alleged criminal wrongdoings."
The move appeared to represent a new effort by Iraqi officials to root out corruption in the Iraqi security forces, which are widely believed to be infiltrated by militias and death squads that do more to exacerbate sectarian tensions than protect citizens. Caldwell said the brigade will undergo "anti-militia, anti-sectarian violence and national unity training."
The brigade's commander might be charged with a crime, and the head of the unit's second regiment has already been arrested, said Brig. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "They are both under investigation to know how all this happened without the security forces interfering to stop it," he said.
Also on Wednesday, a top aide to Moqtada al-Sadr said the anti-American cleric has specific information that U.S.-led coalition forces plan to launch a major attack on Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad filled with his followers.
"They want to turn it into mass graves similar to the previous ones conducted by the former regime," said the aide, Sahib al-Amery. "The occupation forces want to start a sectarian crisis on the pretext that there are Shiite militias."
The United States and Sadr have clashed frequently since the 2003 invasion, and some military officials have been calling for more aggressive moves against the Sadr-controlled Mahdi Army, which is considered to be a militia by nearly everyone in Iraq. On Wednesday, though, Amery disputed that characterization.
"The Mahdi Army is a doctrinal and ideological army, not a militia," he said. "It has no camps or headquarters, and its weapons are self-owned by its members. We in the Shiite areas, we have no terrorist groups or organizations. These are found in the Sunni areas only."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.