By Ann Scott Tyson and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 3, 2007
As U.S. troops push more deeply into Baghdad and its volatile outskirts, Iraqi insurgents are using increasingly sophisticated and lethal means of attack, including bigger roadside bombs that are resulting in greater numbers of American fatalities relative to the number of wounded.
Insurgents are deploying huge, deeply buried munitions set up to protect their territory and mounting complex ambushes that demonstrate their ability to respond rapidly to U.S. tactics. A new counterinsurgency strategy has resulted in decreased civilian deaths in Baghdad but has placed thousands of additional American troops at greater risk in small outposts in the capital and other parts of the country.
"It is very clear that the number of attacks against U.S. forces is up" and that they have grown more effective in Baghdad, especially in recent weeks, said Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, deputy commander for operations in Iraq. At the same time, he said, attacks on Iraqi security forces have declined slightly, citing figures that compare the period of mid-February to mid-May to the preceding three months. "The attacks are being directed at us and not against other people," he said.
May, with 127 American fatalities, was the third-deadliest month for U.S. troops since the 2003 invasion. As in the conflict's two deadliest months for U.S. troops -- 137 died in November 2004 and 135 in April of that year -- the overarching cause of May's toll is the ongoing, large-scale U.S. military operations. Simmons called the high U.S. losses in May "a very painful and heart-wrenching experience."
The intensity of combat and the greater lethality of attacks on U.S. troops is underscored by the lower ratio of wounded to killed for May, which fell to about 4.8 to 1 -- compared with an average of 8 to 1 in the Iraq conflict, according Pentagon data. "The closer you get to a stand-up fight, the closer you're going to get to that 3-to-1 ratio" that typified 2oth-century U.S. warfare, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense information Web site.
Simmons said that in May, the number of armor-piercing weapons known as explosively formed projectiles roughly matched the April high of 65, and the main source of increased U.S. deaths was "large and buried IEDs," or improvised explosive devices.
U.S. deaths have risen sharply in some of Baghdad's outlying regions, such as Diyala province, where Sunni and Shiite groups have escalated sectarian violence and fought back hard against American forces moving into their safe havens. "Extremists on both sides of this thing are trying to make a statement by attacking U.S. troops," Simmons said.
The overall percentage of U.S. military fatalities caused by roadside bombs had dipped from more than 60 percent late last year to 35 percent in February. It then rose again to 70.9 percent in May, according to research by the independent Web site icasualties.org. Gains in defeating the bombs have not resulted in fewer deaths because the number of bombs -- and the lethality of some types -- have increased, military officials said.
Insurgents are also staging carefully planned, complex ambushes and retaliatory attacks as they target U.S. troops, the officials said. While few in number, these include direct assaults on U.S. military outposts, ambushes in which American troops have been captured, and complex attacks that use multiple weapons to strike more than one U.S. target. For example, attackers will bomb a patrol and then target ground forces or aircraft that come to its aid.
"We are starting to see more sophistication and training in their attacks," said a senior military official in Baghdad. While the vast majority of attacks are still relatively simple and involve a single type of weapon, "clearly the trend is going in the wrong direction," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
In an attack Monday in Diyala, for example, an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter carrying two U.S. soldiers took heavy enemy fire during combat and crashed in farmland southwest of the town of Abu Saydah, about 40 miles north of Baghdad in a region where the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to establish a new stronghold.
The U.S. military scrambled Bradley Fighting Vehicles at Forward Operating Base Normandy, 19 miles from the crash, for an urgent rescue. But as the Quick Reaction Force rumbled through the rural terrain just a mile and a half from the crash site, a huge roadside bomb hit a Bradley, killing four soldiers and wounding another four, one mortally. Suddenly, the rescue mission itself was in peril, and helicopters rushed to evacuate the injured.
Other units pushed forward to the copter crash, recovering the bodies of the pilots and killing three insurgents. But back at the Bradley bomb site, where soldiers were clearing the wreckage, a second bomb exploded, killing another U.S. soldier.
In all, eight U.S. troops died and three were wounded in the Memorial Day incident, which contributed to May's toll.
Simmons said helicopter downings such as the one in Diyala reflect a "thinking and adaptive enemy" that is refining its skills. "There is a greater degree of training," he said. Moreover, he said that as in past cases, insurgents may have placed the bombs that killed the ground troops deliberately along routes leading to the copter, but said military investigators have not confirmed that.
In a complex attack in Babil on May 12, a small, two-Humvee U.S. patrol that was watching an area where insurgents often buried roadside bombs came under insurgent observation. Insurgents got through a perimeter of concertina wire, attacked the patrol with grenades, hustled captured soldiers into a getaway car, then used bombs pre-positioned on both sides of the approaching road to delay for about an hour other U.S. forces coming to the patrol's rescue. Four soldiers were killed in the assault, the body of another was found later, and two remain missing.
U.S. commanders have long warned that more casualties would probably result from the increase of about 25,800 U.S. troops ordered by President Bush in January. The increase has placed the troops in the Baghdad region and the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province. These forces have been stationed since February at small patrol bases in Baghdad neighborhoods under a counterinsurgency strategy intended to pacify the capital.
The 2004 spikes in American deaths resulted from major U.S. ground offensives, such as the November 2004 campaign to retake the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah. Today, the losses are occurring as large numbers of U.S. troops disperse into Baghdad and other areas in an effort to protect Iraqis.
Commanders credit U.S. military operations with sharply lowering civilian deaths in Baghdad. The numbers of civilians killed and wounded as well as sectarian murders have all fallen roughly 50 percent in Baghdad in the 90 days ending in mid-May, compared with the previous three months, Simmons said, despite what some military officials described as a slight upturn in civilian deaths in May.
U.S. patrols and raids have also uncovered nearly 2,500 weapons caches and killed or captured more than 20,000 insurgents, militia members and other fighters nationwide since January. Among the enemy killed or captured are more than 1,700 individual targets considered "high value," in what military officials and analysts say is an effort to eliminate leaders of enemy cells in hopes they cannot quickly be replaced.
"Maybe this is the bloody period when we are doing the heavy fighting to get at the bad actors so we can have a more peaceful future," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But after lying low to a degree and watching U.S. tactics, fighters are now responding and retaliating. "In February, all sides -- including al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jaish al-Mahdi -- stepped back to take the measure of the surge, and by late April and May, they stepped forward again and are aggressively testing the resolve of U.S. forces," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College University of London, using the Arabic name of the Shiite Mahdi Army.
Military officials and analysts say the factors contributing to the increased deaths will likely not ease soon. "We are looking at a very nasty summer," Dodge said.
Anderson reported from Baghdad.