WASHINGTON -- Nearly as many US soldiers lost their lives in Iraq in the first half of July as in all of June, even as Iraqi insurgents seem to have shifted focus from attacking US targets to aiming instead at Iraqi security forces and government officials.
The relatively high rate of US military casualties has dimmed hope that the handover of power to the Iraqi government would help stabilize the country and reduce pressure on US soldiers.
June was substantially less violent for US and coalition troops than the two preceding months, fueling hopes that US casualties were on the downswing. However, military officials and defense specialists are increasingly concerned that the guerrilla war could last for years and the number of dead could climb into the thousands.
Since the June 28 handover of power, the 160,000 coalition forces have averaged more than two deaths a day, among the highest rate of losses since the war began 15 months ago. By Saturday, 36 US soldiers had died this month, compared with 42 last month, according to a Globe analysis of official statistics.
The casualties have yet to reach the level they were in April, the bloodiest month of the US-led occupation, when 135 American soldiers died, or May, when 80 Americans died, many of them during a three-week offensive in the southern cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Al Kut against armed followers of a leading Shia cleric.
But this month marks an upsurge in the pace and sophistication of the attacks against US and coalition troops, even as more Iraqi security forces, government ministers, and civilians have also become targets.
By Friday, more than 10,000 coalition soldiers had been wounded. In all, 893 Americans have died since the war began in March 2003, most of them in hostile action.
"We are going to see more casualties," said retired Army General George Joulwan, who commanded NATO forces during the war in Bosnia. "The insurgents are using some very sophisticated tactics, particularly targeting Americans. You are seeing a much more sophisticated enemy. They are demonstrating coordination and a strategy that is effective."
Iraqi security forces, government officials, and civilians are also paying a heavy toll. Last week, another senior official in the nascent Iraqi government, the governor of Mosul, was assassinated, the latest in a series of violent attacks directed at the interim governing authorities.
Still, the continued attacks on US troops demonstrate the staying power and growing flexibility of the insurgency, believed to be made up largely of former Ba'ath Party elements as well as Sunni and Shia Muslim opponents of the US invasion, both Iraqis and foreigners. They have recently shown a greater ability to cut off US military supply routes and to force Americans to adjust their own tactics, officials said.
"The endurance of the Iraqi insurgents could be long term," according to a recently compiled Defense Department analysis obtained by the Globe. "As long as money and supplies are funneled into Iraq, they will be able to carry out their attacks."
Publicly, US officials say it is too early to determine whether the handover is helping to bring violence under control or whether the insurgents are targeting more people in an effort to destabilize the government.
"It's too short a time, really, to make predictions on trends on how it's going totally," Brigadier General David Rodriguez, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.
Still, July has so far been bloody for US forces, showing ominous signs that the insurgents are honing their tactics and beginning to seize some of the initiative from the United States and its coalition allies.
Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003, only three months have had a higher average of daily losses than this month: April and May of this year and last November, which saw an average of almost four US and coalition military deaths per day.
The spring offensive in Najaf and other areas accounted for most of the American losses in April and May. This month, however, the insurgents have been on the offensive, according to military officials and private specialists.
"In April and May we initiated much of the action," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The think tank has compiled a detailed "Iraq Index," which tallies casualty figures, military and civilian. "We were taking the fight to the enemy. Then in June we saw a somewhat lower number. Any hope that June was going to be part of a downward trend appears to be belied by the figures of July. American casualties are either not going down or headed back up in higher territory. Either way, it's disturbing."
The day after the handover, June 29, three Marines were killed in action southeast of Baghdad. The death toll in firefights, from roadside bombs, and in rocket and mortar attacks has not abated since then.
Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, has been a particularly bloody battleground for US troops, in the middle of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which has been a hotbed of resistance for more than a year. On July 8, five soldiers were killed when a mortar struck the Iraqi National Guard headquarters in Baghdad.
Attacks by mortar have increased in recent months, leading to fears that heavily armed insurgents could soon be using rockets and surface-to-air missiles.
"We are having a bad month in the war," said John Pike, a military specialist at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "Until the Iraqi security forces are properly organized, trained, and equipped, the US is going to continue to have significant exposure. That is going to be true for another year or two."
One of the major problems continues to be defining exactly who makes up the insurgency and how large it is.
For months, the Defense Department has estimated that there are about 5,000 hard-core, well-armed fighters, a mix of Hussein loyalists, Arab nationalists, Shi'ite followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; Sunni Islamic extremists from outside Iraq, and criminals who are getting paid for attacking mostly Iraqi forces.
More recently, military officials have conceded privately that the forces fighting the United States and the Iraqi government could number as many as 20,000.
"Though some have different desired end states, all share [the] common goal of expelling the coalition," the Pentagon analysis concluded, adding the "distinction among groups continues to blur, due to shifting alliances of convenience and sharing of resources."
But what is clear is that the anticoalition forces are getting more aggressive, not less. "The handover doesn't mean we are going to see less targeting of Americans," Joulwan said. "What is happening here is that we are finding an increasing number of insurgents. They are becoming much better organized and led."
Added O'Hanlon: "The trend line in casualties and the growing insurgency suggest we are nowhere near out of the woods."
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