American deaths since the invasion of Iraq have reached 2,500, marking a grim milestone in the wake of recent events that President Bush hopes will reverse the war’s unpopularity at home.
The latest death was announced as Congress was launching a symbolic election-year debate over the war, with Republicans rallying against calls by some Democrats to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Pentagon provided no details on the nature of the 2,500th death. Nevertheless, reaching the new marker underscored the continuing violence in Iraq just after an upbeat Bush returned from a surprise visit to Baghdad determined that the tide was beginning to turn.
“It’s a number,” White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters at the White House.
“Any president who goes through a time of war feels very deeply the responsibility for sending men and women into harm’s way, feels very deeply the pain that the families feel. This president is no different,” he said.
“It’s always a sad benchmark, and one of the things the president has said is that these people will not die in vain,” Snow added. “ ... You’ve got a government now that can help ensure that that is not the case.”
The Pentagon releases new casualty figures daily with no fanfare — and scant detail — as defense officials have said that no one death should be highlighted since all losses are equally tragic.
Congress calling for withdrawal
Some members of Congress have been calling for a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, of which there are about 127,000.
The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, in an effort to depose dictator Saddam Hussein, amid now debunked allegations that he had weapons of mass destruction.
According to the Pentagon totals, there have been 1,972 service members killed in action in Iraq, and another 528 died from other non-hostile causes. There also have been 18,490 troops wounded in action, including 8,501 who did not return to duty.
According to some estimates, about 4,800 Iraqi police and security forces have died during the war, and at least 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.
Bush has dismissed calls for a U.S. withdrawal as election-year politics and has consistently refused to give a timetable or benchmark for success that would allow troops to come home.
Bush’s visit sought to capitalize on the death of Iraq’s most feared terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a key victory for the U.S. military, as well as recent progress in setting up the new Iraqi government. Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been struggling to establish his new fledgling democracy and restore order to the capital city, which has seen increased insurgent attacks.
Foot patrols hit the streets
With few signs the insurgency is abating, Maliki has launched new security crackdown with tens of thousands of Iraqi troops fanning out across the city in an effort to end the violence that has devastated the capital. Maliki has also vowed to begin talks with some insurgents as part of a national reconciliation initiative aimed at smoothing relations between the various sectarian groups.
Maliki is also struggling to rebuild a country battered by war, struggling to restore electricity, revive shattered communities and bring back government services — from oil production to schools.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters Wednesday, Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham said it’s more important to focus on the individuals lost than on any aggregate number.
“I don’t know that there’s ever a way that you can adequately thank a family for the sacrifice that they make in the loss of a loved one,” said Ham, deputy operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Yet it’s important to remember that there is — there is a mission and there is a greater good which sometimes necessitates tremendous sacrifice.”