In the three months since thousands of U.S. forces poured into Baghdad to quash escalating violence, far more American troops have died in the volatile western Anbar province than in the capital city.
More than two-thirds of the 245 U.S. casualties between Aug. 7, the start of the Baghdad offensive, and Nov. 7 occurred outside Baghdad — which military leaders have called the “center of gravity” of Iraq, and the key to success in the war. Four in 10 deaths over those three months have been in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgency stronghold where U.S. Marines have largely taken the lead.
Marines, who comprise only about 15 percent of the 141,000 U.S. forces currently in Iraq, accounted for nearly 28 percent of the fatalities over the three-month period.
The Baghdad assault, dubbed Operation Together Forward, started slowly in June. It escalated in early August when about 7,200 additional U.S. troops, including an agile Stryker brigade, were brought into enforce a broad array of checkpoints, curfews and house-to-house searches.
‘Center of gravity in Iraq’
As total U.S. war casualties mounted through this summer and into the fall — from a total of about 2,500 by mid-June to more than 2,870 now — military officials blamed the rise on the Baghdad offensive, as well as the holy observance of Ramadan. The escalating violence made October the fourth deadliest month since the war began.
“Baghdad is the center of gravity for Iraq. We must get it right in Baghdad,” Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the time. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld added, “Most of the violence occurs within 30 kilometers of Baghdad.”
In terms of actual U.S. casualties, the opposite was true.
Most of the 245 deaths during the first three months of Operation Together Forward occurred beyond Baghdad’s boundaries. According to an analysis by The Associated Press, there were 73 casualties in Baghdad between Aug. 7 and Nov. 7, while there were 103 in Anbar.
In comparison, during the first three months of 2006, there were 148 U.S. military deaths in Iraq — nearly 100 fewer than the August-November timeframe.
The death count in Anbar, combined with the deadly spike in sectarian attacks in Baghdad this week, paints a picture of an Iraq still teetering on the brink of civil war, battered by religious divisions, al-Qaida terrorists and a stubborn and diverse insurgency.
U.S. reviewing strategy in Iraq
The unabated violence comes as the Bush administration and the U.S. military are conducting several wide-ranging reviews of Iraq war policy under the critical eyes of Democrats who are poised to take control of both houses of Congress early next year. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, is expected to issue its report soon.
Little more than a week ago, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, acknowledged that the Sunni-dominated Anbar province was still not under control. Yet, military officials and Rumsfeld have often asserted that most of the violence in Iraq has been near Baghdad, and that the military effort must be centered there.
The problems in Anbar prompted U.S. military officials last week to move more than 2,200 additional Marines to the western province in a short-term effort to shore up U.S. combat power there.
Such troop shifts have drawn criticism from Congress in the past. In August, as the Pentagon prepared for the Baghdad operation, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., likened the positioning of forces in Iraq to a game of “whack-a-mole,” where generals try to curb violence in one area only to see it pop up somewhere else.
Overall, the U.S. Army — which has roughly 108,000 soldiers in Iraq — has borne the brunt of the deaths throughout the war, including 163 of the 245 deaths the AP looked at during the three-month period. There were 68 Marines killed during that time, along with seven Navy members and six in the Air Force, and one was unknown.
Roadside bombs prove deadliest
The most prevalent cause of death has remained the same across the country. Roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices caused about 40 percent of the casualties, while another 13 percent were caused by small arms fire or snipers and 33 percent by unspecified combat incidents. Other causes of death included vehicle and helicopter crashes and non-combat incidents.
The high rate of Marine deaths is due in part to the fact that most are performing combat duties in the dangerous Anbar region. While the Army has a much larger presence in Iraq, some soldiers are serving in support roles or working in the headquarters units and are not doing combat duty.
Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said this week that the decision to send more troops to Anbar is an effort to take advantage of “some of the momentum that is taking place. ... It is reinforcing success based on what we see the tribes doing.”