By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006
The number of U.S troops wounded in Iraq has surged to its highest monthly level in nearly two years as American GIs fight block-by-block in Baghdad to try to check a spiral of sectarian violence that U.S. commanders warn could lead to civil war.
Last month, 776 U.S. troops were wounded in action in Iraq, the highest number since the military assault to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004, according to Defense Department data. It was the fourth-highest monthly total since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The sharp increase in American wounded -- with nearly 300 more in the first week of October -- is a grim measure of the degree to which the U.S. military has been thrust into the lead of the effort to stave off full-scale civil war in Iraq, military officials and experts say. Beyond Baghdad, Marines battling Sunni insurgents in Iraq's western province of Anbar last month also suffered their highest number of wounded in action since late 2004.
More than 20,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in combat in the Iraq war, and about half have returned to duty. While much media reporting has focused on the more than 2,700 killed, military experts say the number of wounded is a more accurate gauge of the fierceness of fighting because advances in armor and medical care today allow many service members to survive who would have perished in past wars. The ratio of wounded to killed among U.S. forces in Iraq is about 8 to 1, compared with 3 to 1 in Vietnam.
"These days, wounded are a much better measure of the intensity of the operations than killed," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The surge in wounded comes as U.S. commanders issue increasingly dire warnings about the threat of civil war in Iraq, all but ruling out cuts in the current contingent of more than 140,000 U.S. troops before the spring of 2007. Last month Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, said "sectarian tensions, if left unchecked, could be fatal to Iraq," making it imperative that the U.S. military now focus its "main effort" squarely on Baghdad.
Thousands of additional U.S. troops have been ordered to Baghdad since July to reinforce Iraqi soldiers and police who failed to halt -- or were in some cases complicit in -- a wave of hundreds of killings of Iraqi civilians by rival Sunni and Shiite groups.
U.S. commanders have appealed for weeks for 3,000 more Iraqi army troops to help secure Baghdad but as of Thursday had received only a few hundred, according to military officials in the Iraqi capital. Mistrust of Iraqi police in Baghdad remains high, Abizaid said. Last week, an Iraqi police brigade with hundreds of officers was removed from duty over its involvement in sectarian killings.
"The Baghdad security plan and the general spiral of operations is driving us to be more active than we have been in recent months," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "We have more people on patrols and out of base, so we get more people hurt and killed in firefights," he said, explaining that U.S. military offensives -- more than other factors such as shifting enemy tactics -- tend to drive the number of American casualties.
In March, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that Iraqi forces -- not U.S. troops -- would deal with a civil war in Iraq "to the extent one were to occur." Today's operations in Baghdad demonstrate that that goal was not realistic, experts say.
"In a sense, the Baghdad security plan is a complete repudiation of the earlier Rumsfeld doctrine where he said the Iraqis would prevent the civil war," said O'Hanlon.
Despite the mounting cost in U.S. wounded and dead -- including 13 American soldiers killed in combat in Baghdad in three days last week -- Pentagon officials say aggressive military operations in the Iraqi capital are at best a short-term and partial solution, buying time for political compromise, which they call the only way to arrest Iraq's disintegration.
"The Baghdad security plan will only be a temporary fix," said a Pentagon official who has served in Iraq. "You need to address the root causes," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The rising toll of wounded reflects ongoing heavy combat in Anbar as well as in Baghdad, where U.S. troops face an escalation of small-arms and other attacks as they push into the city's most violent neighborhoods to rein in sectarian death squads, militias and insurgents, officers say.
"Attacks against the coalition have definitely increased as . . . the enemy is trying to come in and reestablish themselves" in a dozen religiously divided districts in east and west Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in the city. "There's a lot of weapons in Baghdad," contributing to an increase in enemy attacks using small arms, he said.
Withington said he was not authorized to release the number of U.S. military personnel wounded in Baghdad or the number of attacks in the city, although the military has released such data in the past.
A survey of reports on combat deaths from August through early October, however, shows an increase in those killed in Baghdad from small-arms fire as well as bombs along roads. Dense urban terrain in the city of 6 million people, where enemy fighters have many places to hide and can attack from close quarters, reduces the advantage of the better-trained and better-equipped U.S. forces.
"September was horrific" in terms of the toll of wounded, and if the early October trend continues, this month could be "the worst month of the war," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based Web site that tracks defense issues.
The worsening violence in Baghdad has led some Pentagon officials to criticize decisions by the U.S. military since early 2005 to transfer responsibility for security in large swaths of Baghdad to Iraqi forces while cutting back on American patrols.
"We made decisions to take an indirect approach, which is great if you want low U.S. casualty rates," said the Pentagon official. However, he said: "Passing responsibility to Iraqis does not equal defeating terrorists and neutralizing the insurgency. Period."