By Ellen Knickmeyer and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 27, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 26 -- Unrelenting daily attacks in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar have made October the deadliest month of the Iraq war for U.S. troops in combat since the all-out American offensives on Fallujah in April and November of 2004, according to U.S. military figures. The military on Thursday reported five more American troops killed, raising the toll for U.S. deaths in hostile action so far this month to 92.
The latest reported deaths -- those of four Marines and a sailor -- occurred Wednesday in Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold. The increasing death toll in Anbar comes after months in which U.S. and Iraqi commanders had said that sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites was their prime concern and that Baghdad was the focus of their efforts.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, attributed the resurgence in American deaths in the western province to "very conscious and deliberate operations" in Ramadi, Anbar's capital.
"It's an aggressive, offensive approach to taking back the city of Ramadi, to return it back to Iraqi security forces," Caldwell said on Thursday.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling Sunni Arab insurgent groups in the heart of Ramadi on a daily basis since early this year, and Caldwell's words -- "taking back" -- reflected the degree to which guerrillas have asserted control over the city.
The insurgent groups include both foreign-led organizations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iraqi resistance groups. U.S. officers said this past summer that they could claim sure control only over a few blocks immediately around Ramadi's town hall, as well as forward operating bases and other American outposts in the lawless city. U.S. troops, especially since summer, have moved more aggressively out into the city, pushing back against insurgents but also putting themselves at greater risk.
It was not clear whether Wednesday's killings were all in Ramadi, and the military gave no details about how they occurred. Local leaders in Ramadi reported that a series of planted bombs and suicide car bombs had targeted American forces around Anbar on Wednesday.
In 2004, thousands of American troops were involved in two concentrated offensives against Sunni Arab insurgents in Fallujah, and the toll in April of that year also included deaths in heavy fighting against forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq. The number of Americans killed in action that month was 126; in November 2004, 125.
In contrast, American deaths this month have come singly or in twos, threes or fours, mostly from roadside bombs and small-arms fire targeting patrols, checkpoints and other day-to-day operations.
Sources within the two militaries, as well as Iraqi militiamen and foreign fighters, cite many of the same reasons for the current increase in violence in Anbar.
After American warplanes killed al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, called on followers to concentrate attacks on U.S. troops and Shiite militiamen, soldiers and police. In September, Masri urged every insurgent in Iraq to kill at least one American within 15 days.
The Egyptian-born Masri wanted redoubled attacks "to have a great effect on the American elections," said Abu Islam al-Arabi, a local al-Qaeda leader reached by telephone Thursday in Anbar province.
Arabi, an Iraqi, suggested other reasons for the surge in attacks: the desire of guerrillas to have their deaths come in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when some Muslims believe martyrdom will earn them special grace in paradise, and what he said was a new influx of foreign fighters, who he said had already made possible dozens of suicide attacks during Ramadan alone.
Except for that last reason, American officers have given all the same possible causes.
Of Iraq's 18 provinces, Anbar is by far the deadliest for U.S. troops: About 1,022 service members have been killed there since the war began, compared with 733 in Baghdad and 281 in Salahuddin province north of the capital, according to the Web site iCasualties.org.
So far in October, not including the most recent American deaths, 35 U.S. troops have been killed in Anbar, 42 in Baghdad and seven in Salahuddin, accounting for 88 percent of the U.S. fatalities, according to the Web site.
In all, 96 American troops have died of all causes -- including accidents and attacks -- since October began. The count is the highest overall toll in a year.
American deaths in the war are dwarfed by those of Iraqi civilians and troops, however.
During the recently concluded month of Ramadan, attacks killed about 300 Iraqi police officers, soldiers and other security forces, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, said this week.
Civilians have died in even larger numbers. Violence killed more than 2,660 last month in Baghdad alone, reflecting a toll that has more than doubled since late spring. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of victims of violent death received by the city morgue averaged 10 a month.
On Thursday, gun battles in the northern town of Baqubah killed at least five policemen and six civilians. Baqubah is home to many Sunni insurgents, but Shiite militiamen also are reported to have flooded into the area lately, and it was not clear who was responsible for Thursday's fighting.
It appeared, however, that the gunmen might have been attempting to win the release of jailed comrades. Maj. Gen. Shakha Hyllil al-Kabi, an Iraqi army commander, said authorities in Baqubah released 53 detainees, keeping only 10 behind. "This is an answer for all the terrorists: We only keep those involved'' in crimes, said Kabi, who said authorities also returned some confiscated cars.
Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.