With the death yesterday of another U.S. soldier in Iraq, the number of U.S. troops who have died there since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, rose to 138 -- the same number as perished during the six weeks of fighting that marked the fall of Baghdad and its immediate aftermath, according to Pentagon records.
The figure of 138 includes not only those killed by enemy fire -- called "hostile" deaths by the Pentagon -- but also those who died as a result of vehicle accidents, drowning, medical problems or other factors unrelated to combat. Yesterday's casualty, for instance, involved an unidentified soldier from the Army's 130th Engineer Brigade who suffered a "non-hostile gunshot wound" -- a phrase that can mean suicide or the accidental discharge of a weapon.
Although the 62 deaths from hostilities since May 1 remain well below the 115 that occurred in March and April, the combat death rate has been averaging one soldier about every other day since Bush flew to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." If that trend continues through the end of the year, those killed in action after May 1 will outnumber those killed in action before then.
Yesterday's threshold event represented a largely symbolic moment in the grinding Iraqi conflict. But by highlighting the steadily mounting U.S. death toll, it underscored the political challenge for the Bush administration in sustaining a reconstruction effort that is clearly costing more U.S. lives than winning the war did.
Instead of facing gradually diminishing resistance, which the administration had expected to find after ousting Saddam Hussein's government, U.S. troops have encountered increasingly organized and violent opposition from Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic militants who U.S. authorities say are flowing into Iraq. The nature of the combat also has shifted, from largely conventional warfare waged by a uniformed Iraqi force to guerrilla-style attacks and terrorist tactics employed by shadowy resistance groups and teams of hit-and-run fighters.
"The loss of every service member is deeply felt, and their courage and sacrifice will not be forgotten," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, asked to comment on the casualty count. "Creating a stable and secure environment for the Iraqi people is important to the national interests of the U.S. and the international community. Our losses only strengthen the resolve of the coalition to accomplish their vital mission."
U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Persian Gulf region, has provided little information about the reported deaths. Official announcements have tended to consist of no more than a few sentences citing the general cause of a death and offering a cursory description of the circumstances involved.
But the announcements over time have revealed some telling trends, particularly when compared with casualty patterns before May 1.
During the invasion and immediate aftermath, many of the U.S. combat deaths resulted from military ambushes, artillery fire and helicopter crashes. Since then, most soldiers have died from attacks involving rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire and what the military calls "improvised explosive devices," or homemade bombs -- all reflecting the less conventional character of the fighting.
Another significant difference is where U.S. soldiers are dying. During the war, the bulk of the deaths took place south of Baghdad as U.S. troops surged from Kuwait toward the Iraqi capital. In recent months, just over half of U.S. casualties from hostile action have occurred in Baghdad, and an additional quarter have come in the "Sunni triangle" bounded by Baghdad and the towns of Ar Ramadi and Tikrit, where some of the fiercest resistance to the U.S.-led reconstruction effort has been concentrated.
During the war, too, many deaths occurred in clusters and resulted from major individual events -- an ambush in Nasiriyah by Iraqi soldiers who pretended to surrender, for instance, or an attack on Army vehicles that became separated from a supply convoy. But in recent months, death reports have trickled into U.S. military headquarters in ones and twos.
On a few days, as many as three U.S. soldiers have been killed. The worst day for U.S. deaths from hostile fire was July 26, when a grenade thrown from the window of an Iraqi hospital took the lives of three soldiers and a fourth soldier died when his convoy came under rocket-propelled grenade attack.
For the most part, there have been few pauses in the mounting death tally. The longest period in which no combat deaths were reported was the 12-day span that began May 14.
During the first six weeks of fighting, each branch of service lost members, although the Army and Marines lost the most. Since May 1, the Army has suffered nearly all the deaths from hostile action. The Navy and the Air Force each have lost one member as a result of hostile fire. The Marine Corps has not reported any combat deaths, although 17 Marines have died in Iraq since May 1 from non-hostile causes.
A sizable number of the Army's deaths from hostilities have involved reservists called up for wartime duty, including eight members of the National Guard and five members of the Army Reserves.
The majority of soldiers killed since May 1 have been lower-ranking enlisted members. But four officers have died from hostile fire, and so have 24 noncommissioned officers. And although more than half of the dead troops were under 30 years old, 15 were in their thirties, one was 40 and another was 54.
No female soldiers have died from hostile fire since May 1. And no deaths in the past four months have resulted from mistaken fire by U.S. or allied troops.
Of the deaths categorized as non-hostile, at least 22 involved vehicle accidents, a common hazard reflecting the dangers of large-scale military operations. As many as four deaths resulted from the accidental detonation of munitions in areas where soldiers were working.
Unspecified health problems accounted for several deaths. One soldier was described as dying "after collapsing while eating dinner" July 8. In three separate instances -- on Aug. 8, 9 and 12 -- soldiers were found dead when others tried to wake them and discovered they were not breathing.
Staff researchers Robert E. Thomason and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
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