BAGHDAD - Two months after the U.S. handed sovereignty back to Iraq amid hopes of reduced violence, more than 110 U.S. troops have been killed and much of the country remains hostile territory. The toll of U.S. dead since the war began last year is fast approaching 1,000.
Although attention in recent weeks has focused on Najaf, where U.S. forces battled Shiite Muslim militiamen, most of the deadly confrontations for American troops in newly independent Iraq have occurred in the Baghdad area and the so-called Sunni Triangle to the north and west.
The concentration of attacks in those areas is a reminder that the fiercest and most organized opposition to U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed interim government continues to be in Sunni-dominated cities, such as Fallouja. Nationwide, U.S. forces are being attacked 60 times per day on average, up 20% from the three-month period before the hand-over.
The occupation of Iraq has technically ended, but a U.S.-commanded multinational force of more than 150,000 is still there, tasked with providing security to the fledgling government. Ubiquitous graffiti denouncing the continued occupation indicate that insurgents see little change in their enemy--U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.
With Iraqi security forces still largely in training, U.S. forces continue to run raids and conduct patrols in many areas, maintaining a very visible presence, especially on the roads. Pulling back to the garrisons now, commanders agree, would open the door to even more chaos and violence.
Although U.S. authorities did not expect casualties to plummet immediately after the transfer of power June 28, American, Iraqi and international officials expressed optimism that restoring sovereignty and officially ending the U.S. occupation would curb the violence.
"We hope that this is going to be a true beginning, and those who are opposing occupation will now consider that opposing occupation is not necessary anymore," Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy who helped select Iraq's interim government, said on the day of the transfer.
But many of the underlying grievances that have stoked the insurgency, such as the presence of U.S. troops and the slow pace of reconstruction, remain. The number of fighters, including loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein, religious militants and others dissatisfied enough to take up a gun or plant a bomb, shows no sign of decreasing.
"There was a government in South Vietnam all those years ago, and we lost a lot of people back there," noted U.S. Army Col. Dana Pittard of the 1st Infantry Division in Baqubah, a zone of conflict northeast of the capital.
In August so far, 63 U.S. troops have died, and 54 died in July, the first complete month after the hand-over of power. In June, 42 American troops died, according to Associated Press and the Pentagon.
Neither July nor August come close to the death tolls of April and May, 135 and 80 troops, respectively. Still, July and August rank among the deadliest months for U.S. forces in Iraq this year.
Overall, 974 U.S. troops had died in Iraq as of Monday, the vast majority, 836, since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1 of last year, the Pentagon said. About 6,500 have been wounded. Since January, the majority of attacks on U.S. forces have come in the form of "indirect fire", such as mortar and rocket strikes — along with homemade roadside bombs.
There is no reliable accounting of Iraqi civilian deaths, but some rough calculations top 10,000. The number of Iraqi military dead is in the 5,000 to 6,000 range, according to think-tank estimates cited by Reuters.
"There are munitions all over this country, remnants of the Saddam era," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director of operations for the multinational forces. "So you can't expect to rid the country of all its weapons in a month or two."
Although daily attacks are up, debate continues over whether the armed insurgency is growing. U.S. officials have stuck with an estimate from last year that the number of hard-core insurgents remains between 4,000 and 6,000, a calculation others call low. The military has arrested more than 40,000 suspected insurgents, most of whom have been released.
"We're losing more people because the resistance is just firing more shots at us," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who supported the decision to go to war. "They are just hitting us hard and everywhere. The reason they are effective is because they just have more people shooting at us."
Pittard in Baqubah, like many field commanders, is openly skeptical of official U.S. estimates of the insurgency's size. He puts the hard-core support at about one half of 1% of the Iraqi population of 24 million — or about 120,000.
The fighting in Iraq has unfolded in stages, as insurgents have turned to different and often bolder techniques. The sovereignty era has seen a wave of takings of foreign hostages and attempted assassinations.
Efforts to kill government officials are so frequent that interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi remarked last week on the menacing messages he receives daily. "Every day there is a threat," he said. "One of them may succeed, I don't know."
Government ministers must travel with bodyguards and vary their daily routes. The government itself meets inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, protected by U.S. tanks and machine-gun nests.
Iraqi civilians have suffered tragically from the violence, with scores dying in bombings and other attacks directed at officials and police outposts.
Contributing to the U.S. death toll in August and the rise in daily attacks was the three weeks of intermittent combat in Najaf with Shiite militants that killed at least 10 U.S. troops.
"Not to be callous, but this is war. People get hurt," said Maj. Douglas Ollivant, operations officer of the Army's 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in Najaf. "Once you start a war, you don't know where it's going to end. The enemy has a vote."
The fact that the Najaf battles didn't spark fierce uprisings in other areas of the country, as happened during the fighting in Fallouja and elsewhere in April, is viewed by some as a hopeful sign. "The people in Najaf, the people around the country, have grown more and more tired of the insurgency and the killing," Lessel said.
Muqtada Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric whose forces were battling U.S. troops in Najaf, ordered his militia last week to leave the city and has asked all of his armed supporters to cease fighting while his group makes plans to join Iraq's emerging political process. Still, much of the goodwill once enjoyed by U.S. forces among Iraq's Shiite majority — which was repressed during the rule of Hussein, a Sunni — has evaporated.
Efforts by Allawi to offer amnesty to former combatants and otherwise reach out to fighters have been less well received among Sunni insurgents.
The Sunni Triangle--more accurately a vast half-moon stretching from Baghdad to the west and north--remains a bastion of armed opposition to the U.S.-led coalition. The city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, has joined Fallouja as basically a no-go zone for U.S. troops and a sanctuary for insurgents.
Periodic violence continues to rack Ramadi, Baqubah and other Sunni-dominated areas. In the northern city of Mosul, a longtime stronghold of Hussein's Baath Party once heralded as an occupation success story, there are almost daily attacks and frequent bombings.
Iraqi security forces, though numerous, totaling about 240,000, are still largely in the training stage, and there is no word on when their presence may result in a drawdown of U.S. forces.
U.S. commanders are hopeful that much of the country will be at "local control", meaning that Iraqi forces will shoulder much of the security burden, by January, when elections are scheduled.
"Of course, the hope is to put the Iraqis out front, we're just not there yet," a senior Army official in Washington said. "This is going to take a really long time."
© 2004 Los Angeles Times