Iraq: Deadliest summer yet for US troops

Issue 

"US combat deaths in Iraq have dropped by half in the two months since the buildup of 28,000 additional troops reached full strength", Associated Press reported on August 31. In the days following, most of the US corporate media repeated this claim. But what they didn't report was that the number of US combat deaths in June-August — a total of 264 — made it the deadliest summer for US occupation troops since the war began in March 2003. Last summer, 169 US soldiers were killed in Iraq.

On September 10, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, told the US Senate armed services committee that the troop "surge" had reduced "sectarian killings" across Iraq by 55%. The US McClatchy Newspapers chain, however, reported that same day that Petraeus's "charts showed that 'ethno-sectarian' deaths in August, down from July, were still higher than in June, and he didn't explain why the greatest drop in such deaths, which peaked in December, occurred between January and February, before the surge began".

According to the widely cited, US-based ICasualties.org website, a total of 1752 Iraqis, including 123 soldiers and police, were killed in December 2006. The September 1 Los Angeles Times reported that "violence related to the war killed at least 1773 Iraqi civilians in August, the second month in a row that civilian deaths have risen, according to [Iraqi] government figures obtained Friday".

"In July, the civilian death toll was 1753, and in June it was 1227. The numbers are based on morgue, hospital and police records and come from officials in the ministries of health, defense and the interior. The statistics appear to indicate that the increase in troops ordered by President [George] Bush this year has done little to curb civilian bloodshed, despite US military statements to the contrary ...

"The latest Iraqi government figures show that from an initial drop in civilian deaths after the president's plan was launched Feb. 13, deaths quickly climbed back nearly to previous levels."

On September 9, AP reported that, according to a US Defense Intelligence Agency document it had obtained, the total number of "violent acts" committed against US troops, Iraqi soldiers and police and Iraqi civilians had hardly changed over the first six months of this year. The DIA recorded 5148 such acts in January (with 57% of them directed at US troops) and 4804 such acts in July (with 65% of them directed at US troops).

Petraeus also told the Senate committee that the troop surge should be maintained until July next year. However AP reported on August 30 that the US Army "has nearly exhausted its fighting force and its options if the Bush administration decides to extend the Iraq buildup beyond next spring".

These options include using units of the part-time National Guard on an "accelerated schedule", breaking the Pentagon brass's "pledge to keep soldiers in Iraq for no longer than 15 months" or breaking "a commitment to give soldiers a full year at home before sending them back to war". AP added that for "a war-fatigued nation ... none of those is desirable".

There are currently 18 US Army combat brigades, each with about 3500 soldiers, deployed in Iraq. Two US Marine Corps regiments — each roughly the same size as a US Army brigade — are also in Iraq. In addition to the 70,000 combat troops that make up these 20 brigades, there are about 98,000 US support troops, making a total of 168,000 US occupation troops.

This deployment has only been possible because US troops' tours in Iraq were extended in April from 12 to 15 months. Beginning next April, as these 15-month tours are completed, the US occupation force will decline toward its pre-surge size of 134,000.

"The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply", US Army chief of staff General George Casey told the US National Press Club on August 15. "Right now we have in place deployment and mobilisation policies that allow us to meet the current demands. If the demands don't go down over time, it will become increasingly difficult for us to provide the trained and ready forces" for other missions.

Casey said he would not be "comfortable" extending troops' war-zone tours beyond their 15-month deployments. However, AP reported that "other military officials acknowledge privately that option is on the table ... According to military officials, some soldiers in Iraq are hearing that it may not be wise to pack their bags to come home when their 15-month tour is up. But to date, Pentagon officials, including defense secretary Robert Gates, have said they have no plans to extend those tours."

As a result, AP added, "National Guard officials are bracing for a new round of guard deployments and a move to decrease their time at home between tours — despite announced plans to give the citizen soldiers five years off for every one year served.

"Last April, the Pentagon notified National Guard brigades in four states that they should be prepared to deploy to Iraq later this year. But documents obtained by the AP show that guard units in five states — Indiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Minnesota — are scheduled to deploy to Iraq before the end of the year."

On September 3, Bush — accompanied by Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — made a six-hour visit to the giant US-controlled Asad Air Base in Iraq's western Anbar province. The base houses 17,000 US military personnel.

Though he never left the base, Bush told a crowd of 700 US marines and soldiers: "I have come here today to see with our own eyes the remarkable changes that are taking place in Anbar province ... [Anbar] was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq."

In reality, Anbar accounted for 20% of the 787 "coalition" troops killed in Iraq in the first eight months of this year — second only to Baghdad province, which accounted for 42%. In July and August, 163 US troops were killed in Iraq, 39 in Anbar and 82 in Baghdad.

Reporting Bush's remarks, AP military writer Robert Burns noted that this "assertion is part of Bush's push to sell Anbar as a success story and to hold it up to his congressional critics as a reason why the troop buildup should not be cut short.

"In truth, the progress in Anbar was initiated by the Iraqis themselves, a point Gates himself made, saying the Sunni tribes decided to fight and retake control from al Qaeda many months before Bush decided to send an extra 4000 Marines to Anbar as part of his troop buildup".

Indeed, the driving out the foreign Arab-led Sunni fundamentalist al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) group from Anbar began well over a year before Bush announced his troop build-up.

The February 6, 2006 London Telegraph reported that in "a statement released to the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper, six Iraqi armed groups, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Movement for Iraq's Mujahideen, announced that they had united to form a 'people's cell' to confront [Abu Musa al] Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and provide security in Anbar".

The March 11, 2006 Telegraph reported: "Insurgent groups in one of Iraq's most violent provinces claim that they have purged the region of three quarters of al Qaeda's supporters after forming an alliance to force out the foreign fighters ...

"The claims were partly supported by the Iraqi defence ministry, which said it had evidence that Zarqawi and his followers were fleeing Anbar to cities and mountains near the Iranian border.

"It is this move that is believed to have prompted a statement a fortnight ago from the insurgent groups in the central city of Hawija that they were declaring war on al Qaeda. It is being interpreted by intelligence experts as a response to an unwanted influx of foreign fighters seeking refuge.

"Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgents had originally welcomed al Qaeda into the country, seeing it as a powerful ally in its fight against the American occupation. But relations became strained when insurgents supported calls for Sunnis to vote in last December's election, a move they saw as essential to break the Shia hold on government but which al Qaeda viewed as a form of collaboration. It became an outright split when a wave of bombings killed scores of people in Anbar resulting in a spate of tit-for-tat killings.

"In reaction, the insurgent groups formed their own anti-al Qaeda militia, the Anbar Revolutionaries ... It is led by Ahmed Ftaikhan, a former Saddam-era military intelligence officer."

The routing of the AQI from Anbar by the mainstream Iraqi resistance organisations gives the lie to Bush's repeated claim that the withdrawal of the US occupation forces from Iraq would turn the country into an "al Qaeda safe haven".