By Sudarsan Raghavan and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 7, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 6 -- Eight American soldiers were killed in roadside bomb attacks Sunday, one of the highest single-day death tolls this year. They were among 12 U.S. service members whose deaths were announced on a day when car bombs killed scores of Iraqis across the country, threatening to deepen sectarian tensions.
A senior U.S. commander said Sunday that the military was bracing for a rise in the casualty rate in the coming months, as an ongoing security offensive attempts to tame the devastating violence and stabilize Baghdad.
"All of us believe that in the next 90 days, you'll probably see an increase in American casualties because we are taking the fight to the enemy," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's Task Force Marne, told reporters Sunday. "This is the only way we can win the fight."
Even as insurgents take aim at U.S. troops, they have stepped up their attacks on so-called soft targets, especially in Shiite areas of Baghdad, in an apparent attempt to stoke sectarian warfare. In the deadliest such attack Sunday, a car bomb explosion tore through one of the capital's biggest markets at midday, killing 42 people, police said. The blast, in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Bayaa, ravaged buildings, scorched vehicles and injured at least 67 people, police said.
Under the new counterinsurgency plan, U.S. soldiers increasingly live in and patrol hostile parts of Baghdad and surrounding areas such as volatile Diyala province, where hundreds of fighters have fled to escape the offensive. The military's goal is to wrest control of neighborhoods and towns from insurgents and militias by winning the trust of and getting information from residents.
But the strategy has multiplied the risks to U.S. soldiers. Insurgents are proving resilient and are drawing on their deep knowledge of the land and sophisticated tactics to wage a guerrilla war with sniper and suicide attacks and the roadside bombings that kill more Americans in Iraq than any other form of violence.
Lynch said his forces were more frequently encountering powerful roadside bombs called "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs, which U.S. officials say are of Iranian origin and can punch through the armor of Humvees. Other roadside bombs are buried so deep in the ground that they are difficult to find even with high-tech devices, he said.
While U.S. military officials view EFPs as a weapon of Shiite extremists, Lynch said they were also turning up in the hands of Sunni insurgents.
"The enemy dominates the terrain," he said. "He has the opportunities to set ambushes. He has the opportunity to set traps."
"You got a thinking enemy out there," Lynch added. "As soon we do something to prove our capability, he does something to defeat our capability. It is a continual cycle. That's why I will never rest with our up-armored Humvees or our technology."
Still, Lynch predicted that by August or September, U.S. forces would have "a decisive effect on enemy formations."
Lynch said he did not feel the same way about Iraq's political process. "I don't see there will be significant progress on the government side between now and fall," he said. "You can't just build a government overnight."
In Sunday's deadliest attack on U.S. troops, a roadside bomb struck a convoy in Diyala province, killing six soldiers and a journalist, and wounding two soldiers, the military said in a statement. The attack followed a pair of suicide truck bombings last month in Diyala that killed nine U.S. soldiers and injured 20.
U.S. military officials said the journalist was European but did not provide further details because the family had not been notified. According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based watchdog group, 167 reporters and media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war.
Two soldiers, one in southern Baghdad, the other north of the capital, were also killed Sunday in roadside bomb attacks on their convoys, the military said. Two Marines were killed during combat operations Saturday, and a U.S. soldier died in a bomb attack in western Baghdad on Friday, the military said Sunday. Another soldier died in a noncombat incident in Tikrit on Sunday.
The U.S. death toll Sunday was the eighth-highest of the year, according to http://icasualties.org, an independent Web site that monitors military deaths.
A British soldier died Sunday of injuries suffered last week in a roadside bomb attack in the southern city of Basra, the British military said in a statement.
Lynch, who commands U.S. troops south of Baghdad and in mostly Shiite areas in southern Iraq, said 13 of his soldiers had been killed and 39 injured since April 1, most in roadside bombings. In a pocket of his uniform, he carries a pile of laminated index cards, each with a deceased soldier's picture and personal details. He calls them "fallen hero" cards.
"They are not numbers," Lynch said, holding the cards. "They are people."
In other attacks Sunday, a car bomb in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad killed at least five people and wounded 12.
North of Baghdad, a car bomb attack on a police headquarters in Samarra killed the station commander, Jalil Naji Hassoon al-Dulaimi, and at least 11 other officers, according to Iraqi police and the U.S. military. Eleven officers were wounded in the incident, as were two U.S. soldiers who were among a group of paratroops that rushed to the scene, the U.S. military said in a statement. Samarra was the site of a Shiite shrine bombing in February 2006 that sparked a wave of sectarian violence in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
At least 11 other Iraqis were killed in other bombings and mortar attacks Sunday. Police in Baghdad found 11 bound and unidentified bodies, all with gunshot wounds to the head.
U.S. soldiers conducting a pre-dawn raid in the Sadr City district of Baghdad killed at least eight militants and destroyed a house containing a bloodstained "torture room" and a cache of 150 mortar rounds and bomb-making materials, the military said.
The unit was targeting a "secret cell" of Shiite fighters involved in kidnappings and the smuggling of EFPs, a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said at a news conference.
Lynch said it was unclear whether Sunni extremists were receiving the EFPs from Iran or if they were buying them on the black market in Iraq. Critics have dismissed U.S. assertions of Iranian involvement, saying that evidence provided so far is not solid proof.
Lynch, who described himself as a student of history, said that bringing stability to Iraq could take years.
"Counterinsurgency operations that have been successful in the past took a minimum of nine years. Others took a lot longer but never were that successful," he said. "There is not an instantaneous solution to this problem."