Deadly year in Iraq

WASHINGTON – By key measures of the level of insurgent violence against American forces in Iraq – numbers of dead, wounded and insurgent attacks – the situation has grown worse since summer.

While those numbers don’t tell the full story of the conflict in Iraq, they suggest insurgents are growing more proficient, even as the size of the U.S. force increases and U.S. commanders succeed in soliciting more help from ordinary Iraqis.

For example:

– The U.S. military suffered at least 348 deaths in Iraq over the final four months of the year, more than in any other similar period since the invasion in March 2003.

-The number of wounded surpassed 10,000, with more than a quarter injured in the last four months as direct combat, roadside bombs and suicide attacks escalated. When President George W. Bush declared May 1, 2003, that major combat operations were over, the number wounded stood at just 542.

– The number of attacks on U.S. and allied troops grew from an estimated 1,400 attacks in September to 1,600 in October and 1,950 in November. A year earlier, the attacks numbered 649 in September, 896 in October and 864 in November.

U.S. commanders insist they are making progress, in part by taking the fight more directly to the insurgents. And they remain hopeful that more U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces will join the fight soon. Some observers are more doubtful.

‘The prospects in Iraq are grim,’ Dan Goure, an analyst at the private Lexington Institute think tank in Washington, said Thursday. He assessed the conflict as a standoff, with no clear indication that either side will achieve victory in the coming year.

‘Neither side can truly come to grips with the other so far and defeat them,’ Goure said.

U.S. commanders constantly analyze the insurgents’ tactics and make adjustments. Yet although U.S. forces have found tons of hidden weaponry and ammunition, the insurgents kill almost daily with makeshift bombs known as improvised explosive devices. They plant the bombs along roads or stuff them into cars for suicide attacks. The toll is clear.

Pentagon statistics show that for all of 2004, at least 838 U.S. troops died in Iraq. Of that total, more than 700 were killed in action, by far the highest number of American battlefield deaths since at least 1980, the first year the Pentagon compiled all-service casualty statistics.

It almost certainly is the highest killed-in-action total for any year since the Vietnam War. U.S. deaths averaged 62 per month through the first half of the year. But since June 28, when U.S. officials restored Iraqi sovereignty and dissolved the U.S. civilian occupation authority, that average has jumped to about 78.

Deaths among U.S. National Guard and Reserve troops are rising, reaching a single-month peak of 27 in November. At least 17 were killed in December. Nearly 200 Guard and Reserve troops have died since the war began, and more than one-third of those deaths happened in the past four months.

Bush administration and U.S. military officials had predicted that the insurgents would intensify their efforts to create chaos before the Jan. 30 elections for an Iraqi National Assembly. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during a visit last week to U.S. troops in Iraq that he saw no reason to think the violence would abate even after the elections.

‘All along the way it’s bumpy,’ Rumsfeld told a group of Marines over lunch at their base outside of Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad where nearly 100 Marines have been killed over the past two months. ‘It’s tough, and there are setbacks. It’s not a smooth, easy, steady path to success.’

Since the Marines regained control of Fallujah after fierce battles in November – by far the bloodiest month of the war for the Corps – the focus of insurgent violence has shifted to the northern city of Mosul.

A Dec. 21 attack on a military mess hall in Mosul killed 22, including 13 U.S. soldiers and a sailor – the deadliest single attack on a U.S. installation in the war. At least six other U.S. troops died in other attacks in Mosul during December.

Even as U.S. losses mount, the brunt of insurgent violence is hitting the Iraqi security forces being trained by U.S. troops, as well as Iraqi political figures and Iraqis seen as supporting the Americans.

On Tuesday, for example, insurgents lured Iraqi police to a house in Baghdad with an anonymous tip about an insurgent hideout. Then they set off explosives, killing at least 29 people, including seven Iraqi policemen, and wounding 18.

Across the restive area north and west of Baghdad, known as the Sunni Triangle, car bombs, ambushes and assassinations killed at least 54 people on Tuesday, including 31 policemen and a deputy provincial governor.

On the brighter side, the U.S. military says ordinary Iraqis are beginning to speak up, making it easier for troops to uncover weapons caches and capture insurgents. That is true around Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, according to the Marines.

‘The atmospherics in and around Ramadi seem to show that the local populace is tired of the insurgents and their intimidation and violence,’ 1st Lt. Nathan Braden, spokesman for the 1st Marine Division, said in an e-mail exchange Wednesday.

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