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U.S. death toll in Iraq: one GI per day

The U.S. death toll in Iraq has continued to mount despite Saddam Hussein's capture and talk of cracking the insurgency.
Funeral For Florida Soldier Kiled In Iraq
The casket carrying U.S. National Guard Spec. Robert Allen Wise is lowered at his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Nov. 24. Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly two months have passed since Saddam Hussein’s capture, yet American soldiers still are dying at a rate of more than one a day.

Forty-five soldiers died in January and three more in the first three days of February. The January toll was five more than in December, despite hopes that Saddam’s Dec. 13 capture would weaken the Iraqi insurgency and slow the killings from roadside bombs and other attacks.

The number of deaths in January will rise to 47 when the Pentagon changes the status of two soldiers who are missing and believed to have died in the Tigris River on Jan. 25. That would make the second highest monthly total since last April when daily combat from the invasion was still under way.

The worst month was November, when 82 died. In October there were 43, September had 30, August 35.

All told, 528 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March. (The Pentagon’s official tally on Tuesday was 525, but that did not include two deaths on Feb. 1 and one on Feb. 3.)

A review of Pentagon casualty reports shows that, of 39 deaths in January that the Army attributed to hostile action, 23 involved attacks with homemade bombs, which the military calls “improvised explosive devices.”

The Army has put enormous effort into overcoming the threat from homemade bombs, often detonated along roadways used by Army convoys. Usually a remotely transmitted signal sets them off.

To counter the threat, more soldiers are using Humvee utility vehicles with extra armor, and troops are wearing an improved version of body armor that provides more protection against bomb shrapnel. Some vehicles also are equipped now with devices that jam the electronic signal used to detonate the bombs.

Saddam's capture
When U.S. troops captured Saddam near his hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 13, some thought that would take the sting out of the resistance. By early January, U.S. commanders were publicly emphasizing that the number of attacks on U.S. troops had declined, as had hostile deaths.

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told reporters on Jan. 6 that “we’ve turned the corner” in the counterinsurgency effort in his area of responsibility, the western part of Iraq, which includes a part of the so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad.

The number of attacks on his forces had declined by almost 60 percent in the past month, he said then.

Two weeks later, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said, “The former regime elements we’ve been combating have been brought to their knees.” His troops operate in an area north of Baghdad that includes Tikrit, a focus of anti-U.S. violence.

But in fact, many of the fatal attacks against U.S. forces in January were in Swannack’s and Odierno’s areas. On Jan. 24, for example, three soldiers from Swannack’s force were killed in an improvised explosive device attack in the town of Khalidiyah, east of Ramadi, in the Sunni Triangle. Three days later, another such attack near the same town killed three more soldiers. Still another who was severely wounded in the same attack died in a hospital two days later.

On Jan. 31, three soldiers from Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division were killed when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device while traveling in a convoy in the city of Kirkuk.

False hope
The depth and effectiveness of the insurgency is difficult to measure with only statistics, which tend to fluctuate over time. It appeared a few weeks ago that many U.S. commanders had hoped the drop-off in guerrilla action would usher in a less violent period for U.S. troops.

That has not happened. In an eight-day span, Jan. 9 to Jan. 16, only three American soldiers died, and two from nonhostile causes.

But in the two weeks after that, 26 died — all but three in hostile action.

L. Paul Bremer, U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, said Tuesday he still believes security has improved. “I think the situation has improved importantly since the capture of Saddam Hussein,” he said.

In the four weeks after Saddam’s capture, the number of insurgent attacks against American troops throughout Iraq did fall to an average of 18 per day from 23 per day in the preceding four weeks.

But on Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of operations for the U.S. military in Baghdad, told reporters that the daily average had climbed back to 23 in the past week.

Kimmitt said the insurgency presents a danger as long as U.S. troops are getting killed or wounded.

“One never wants to have the significant responsibility of having to walk up to a family and tell them that their son or their daughter has died in combat,” he said. “And so I don’t want to make an assessment until that number is zero. Then I’ll tell you the assessment is good.”