BAGHDAD - American forces have dramatically increased airstrikes in Iraq during the past five months, a change of tactics that may foreshadow how the United States plans to battle a still-strong insurgency while reducing the number of U.S. ground troops serving here.
A review of military data shows that daily bombing runs and jet-missile launches have increased by more than 50 percent in the past five months, compared with the same period last year. Knight Ridder's statistical findings were reviewed and confirmed by American Air Force officials in the region.
The numbers also show that U.S. forces dropped bombs on more cities during the last five months than they did during the same period a year ago. Airstrikes hit at least 11 cities between Oct. 1, 2004, and Feb. 28, 2005, but were mostly concentrated in and around the western city of Fallujah. A year later, U.S. warplanes struck at least 22 cities during the same months.
The spike in bombings comes at a crucial time for American diplomatic efforts in Iraq. Officials in Washington have said that the situation in Iraq is improving, creating expectations that at least some American troops might be able to withdraw over the next year.
On Monday, President Bush stopped short of promising a withdrawal. But he said he expects that Iraqi government forces will control more of Iraq, allowing U.S. forces to carry out more targeted missions.
"As more capable Iraqi police and soldiers come on line, they will assume responsibility for more territory - with the goal of having the Iraqis control more territory than the coalition by the end of 2006," Bush said. "And as Iraqis take over more territory, this frees American and coalition forces to concentrate on training and on hunting down high-value targets, like the terrorist (Abu Musab al) Zarqawi and his associates."
There are risks to a strategy that relies more on aerial bombings than ground combat patrols. In the town of Samarra, for example, insurgents last month were able to spend several hours rigging explosives in the dome of a Shiite shrine that they later destroyed, in part because American troops patrolled less. The shrine's destruction triggered a week of sectarian violence that killed hundreds. U.S. soldiers interviewed in Samarra three weeks earlier said patrols in the city had been scaled back because the number of troops had been reduced by two-thirds.
Airstrikes also risk civilian casualties, driving a wedge between American forces and Iraqis, Iraqis say.
Osama Jadaan al Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the western town of Karabilah, a town near the Syrian border that was hit with bombs or missiles on at least 17 days between October 2005 and February 2006, said the bombings had created enemies.
"The people of Karabilah hate the foreigners who crossed the border and entered their areas and got into a fight with the Americans," al Dulaimi said. "The residents now also hate the American occupiers who demolished their houses with bombs and killed their families ... and now the people of Karabilah want to join the resistance against the Americans for what they did."
The U.S. military has said repeatedly that it uses precise munitions and targets insurgent locations that are verified by various intelligence sources.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said that the airstrikes reflected U.S. soldiers' ability to target more sharply insurgents across Iraq.
"This is one more tool that they have pulled out ... as they have been able to better refine their tactics and procedures," Johnson said. "Airpower has always been available. I don't see a ramping-up; I see a refinement" of intelligence that allows for more airstrikes.
Johnson also disputed the idea that the bombings exact a political cost.
"The same thing could be said of anything we use to target the enemy," Johnson said. "If they take up arms against Iraqi and coalition forces, they are going to be targeted with the weapons the commander on the ground deems most effective to eliminate the threat."
Knight Ridder compiled the statistics from about 300 daily press releases provided by the U.S. Central Command's air forces unit, which describes itself as the "predominant owner of air assets in the region." The releases detailed bombing activities, but they didn't include actions of Marine Corps units, so the number of bombings probably is higher.
Air Force officials who reviewed the statistics confirmed that they were correct.
The statistics show that U.S. and coalition planes dropped bombs or missiles on Iraqi cities on at least 76 days from Oct. 1, 2005, through Feb. 28, 2006 - or one out of every two days. During the same period a year earlier, bombs or missiles struck on only 49 days, the tabulation showed.
Bombs were dropped on more days in each of the last five months than they were for the same months the previous year. For example, the U.S. military launched bombings and missile strikes on 20 days in December 2005, compared with 12 in December 2004, and 10 in January 2006, compared with five in January 2005.
The figures also indicate that the insurgency has branched out after American forces retook the city of Fallujah in November 2004, robbing the insurgents of their main base of operations in Iraq.
In Anbar province, Fallujah was hit hardest in the 2004 to 2005 period. During the heaviest fighting there in 2004, from Nov. 10-16, American aircraft dropped at least 54 bombs or missiles on the town.
But from October 2005 to February 2006, Fallujah wasn't mentioned in the daily reports, though eight other cities in Anbar were.
Stories of American missiles hitting the homes of innocents are passed between Iraqi men at teahouses and during Friday worship services.
"Residents worry that their homes will be bombed at any time," said Hussein Ali Jaafar, who owns a stationery shop in the town of Balad, north of Baghdad, which was targeted by bombs or missiles at least 27 times between October 2005 and February 2006. "Most of the bombing is unjustified and random. It does not differentiate between militants and innocent people."
A tribal sheik who lives on the outskirts of the troubled Anbar town of Ramadi, who asked that he be identified as Abu Tahseen instead of by his full name out of fear of possible retribution, said that the strikes create more insurgents than they kill because of the region's tribal dictates of revenge.
"They (the Americans) think: `As long as there are resistance fighters operating in this spot, we will wipe it out entirely,'" Abu Tahseen said, using the term for insurgents favored by Iraqis sympathetic to their cause. "As you know, our nature is a tribal one, and so if one from us is killed, we kill three or four in return."
Comparing the total number of bombs and missiles dropped from one year to the next isn't possible because the Central Command releases began late last year to refer to "precision guided bombs" or "precision guided munitions" instead of the actual number and type of bomb used.
"The change in nomenclature reflects internal angst about whether or not it is appropriate to give the specific types of ordnance dropped,'" said Air Forces spokesman Maj. Robert P. Palmer in an e-mail exchange.
Knight Ridder special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Hassan al Jubouri contributed to this report.
© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources