2007 Toll A Record For U.S. In Iraq

U.S. soldiers prepare to search an auto yard in Mosul, northern Iraq. Troop casualties have declined sharply since early summer, officials said.
U.S. soldiers prepare to search an auto yard in Mosul, northern Iraq. Troop casualties have declined sharply since early summer, officials said. (By Maya Alleruzzo -- Associated Press)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 6 -- The U.S. military announced Tuesday that five soldiers and a sailor had been killed a day earlier, making 2007 the deadliest year for American troops since the start of the war in Iraq.

The record death toll of at least 852 U.S. military personnel killed this year underscores the high cost of the American troop increase, launched in February, which has begun to drive down the sectarian violence that once gripped much of the country.

"The strategy was to interject our soldiers between the Iraqi citizens and the terrorists, insurgents and militias," Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant, chief of plans for American forces in Baghdad, said in an interview. "A regrettable consequence of that is your casualties go up."

But the grim milestone belied a more optimistic trend: Troop fatalities have declined sharply since early summer. In October, the death toll for U.S. troops fell to 38, its lowest level since March 2006, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks military fatalities more rapidly than the Pentagon makes its numbers public.

Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, a battalion commander in western Baghdad, said fighting in the spring had helped secure local neighborhoods. He said there had not been a roadside bomb attack in his area of operations for three months and no mortar or rocket attacks since July.

"In general, the area is quiet," Kuehl wrote in an e-mail. "The past year has been an emotional roller coaster. I have had some of the worst days of my life . . . but I also have felt a strong sense of accomplishment."

"I am confident that we have established a much more secure environment for the people we have been tasked to protect," Kuehl added. "However, a part of me is afraid to believe what we have accomplished, knowing what it has cost to get us to today."

The deaths of the six troops Monday served as a collective reminder of the dangers the U.S. military still faces in Iraq.

In the northern province of Tamim, four soldiers were killed by an explosion near their vehicle while they conducted combat operations, the military said. In nearby Salahuddin province, a sailor was killed by an explosion, it said. And in western Anbar province, once a stronghold of Sunni extremism but now relatively calm, a soldier was killed while conducting combat operations, the military said.

The attacks brought the total death toll for American troops in Iraq this year to 852, higher than the 849 killed in 2004, when most of the fatalities came during large-scale conventional battles, according to icasualties.org.

Col. J.B. Burton, commander of the Dagger Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based in northwestern Baghdad, said pitched fighting in May and June was a necessary part of the U.S. counterinsurgency plan.

"We had to get off these bases and get into the neighborhoods where the enemy was," he said. "We saw an increase in violence, but it enabled us to talk to citizens and cause al-Qaeda to lose control of their sanctuaries to the point where they're ineffective." The Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq has asserted responsibility for some of the worst violence in the country.

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