By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 -- The number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 reached 3,000 on Sunday, a symbolic milestone at a time when the Bush administration is rethinking its strategy for the increasingly violent conflict.
As the year drew to a close, the U.S. military announced that a soldier was killed Saturday by a roadside bomb while on patrol in a southeastern neighborhood of Baghdad. Two soldiers were injured in the attack. Their names were not released.
The Defense Department also announced that Spec. Dustin R. Donica, 22, of Spring, Tex., was killed by small-arms fire Thursday in Baghdad.
According to the Associated Press and the independent Web site iCasualties.org, both of which keep counts of war fatalities, the deaths raised the American toll to at least 3,000.
Reaching that threshold has significance at a time when President Bush is considering a change in strategy that could include sending in more troops. The 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq have not been able to reduce the daily violence caused by an aggressive insurgency in the western province of Anbar and an increasingly bitter sectarian conflict in Baghdad.
"What you see is the U.S. deeply involved in this fight against an insurrection and increasingly trying to bring order to a low-level civil war," Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by telephone in Washington. "There's no way you can do that with 140,000 troops in a country of 27 million without having casualties."
He added: "This pace of casualties is likely to go on until we can change or find a new approach."
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended that the focus of U.S. troops in Iraq be shifted from combat to training Iraqi soldiers and police officers, and that most combat brigades be withdrawn by early 2008.
The most recent deaths happened during a particularly costly month of the war. With 111 fatalities, according to iCasualties.org, December was not only the deadliest month of 2006 for U.S. troops, but the deadliest in two years.
Most of December's deaths occurred in Anbar province, and most were the result of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, according to a Washington Post analysis of the data. But insurgents have found other ways to attack troops, among them sniper fire.
The number of service members who have been wounded has continued to climb as well. More than 22,000 troops have been injured so far, according to the latest Defense Department data.
A Pentagon report in December gave a grim assessment of the war, acknowledging that violence soared to its highest level this fall, with anti-U.S. fighters achieving "strategic success" by unleashing a spiral of sectarian killings by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslim death squads. According to the report, the violence had reached record highs, with 959 attacks per week.
In the United States, public discontent over the war has grown, evidenced by the fact that voters gave Democrats control of the new Congress. Many media outlets and pundits have pointed out that the military death toll in Iraq now exceeds the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which Bush has often cited as justification for the war.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush "believes that every life is precious and grieves for each one that is lost."
"He will ensure their sacrifice was not made in vain," Stanzel said. "The war on terror will be a long struggle. We will be fighting violent jihadists for peace and security of the civilized world for years to come."
Military leaders played down the significance of reaching 3,000 deaths.
"We don't count that way, because each one is important to us," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "Number 2,999 means the same to us as number 3,000. It's an arbitrary number that doesn't mean anything to us."
The Defense Department count of Americans killed in Iraq stood at 2,986 as of Sunday, said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. The Pentagon's official count often lags because it does not include a fatality in its official tally until 24 hours after notifying next of kin. The U.S. military in Iraq issues news releases with names withheld before deaths are officially counted.
"Let's set aside discussion of numbers," Ballesteros said. "Every loss is regretted, each loss has a value, significance and importance unto itself, regardless of what number anyone would assign."
Each death, he said, "is felt individually by that person's family and friends. It's particularly difficult during the holidays."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz in Crawford, Tex., and Elizabeth Williamson in Washington contributed to this report.