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thedrifter
01-02-08, 09:52 AM
2007: Record combat deaths before downturn
By Bradley Brooks - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Jan 2, 2008 6:40:32 EST

BAGHDAD — The second half of 2007 saw violence drop dramatically in Iraq, but the progress came at a high price: The year was the deadliest for the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion, with 899 troops killed.

That said, U.S. combat deaths in Iraq declined for the seventh consecutive month and hit their lowest monthly total since February 2004, according to Pentagon casualty records.

As of Sunday, 14 U.S. troops have been killed in combat in December. Six more died in non-combat-related incidents. The last month in which fewer than 20 U.S. troops were killed in combat was February 2004, when 12 troops were killed.

American commanders and diplomats, however, said the battlefield gains against insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq offer only a partial picture of where the country stands as the war moves toward its five-year mark in March.

“We’re focusing our energy on building on what coalition and Iraqi troopers have accomplished in 2007,” Army Gen. David Petraeus told a group of western journalists on Saturday. “Success will not, however, be akin to flipping on a light switch. It will emerge slowly and fitfully, with reverses as well as advances, accumulating fewer bad days and gradually more good days.”

Two critical shifts that boosted U.S.-led forces in 2007 — a self-imposed cease-fire by a main Shiite militia and a grass-roots Sunni revolt against extremists — could still unravel unless serious unity efforts are made by the Iraqi government.

Of the more than 70,000 fighters in these Sunni awakening councils, only 20 percent are expected to be absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. The rest are to receive job training through a joint $300 million program Iraqi and American officials are creating.

That program is in its beginning stages and there are few details about how it will be carried out, but analysts say it must succeed or the Sunni fighters who do not join Iraq’s military may sell their services to the insurgents.

“How lasting a phenomenon that will be and how Iran will define and play its role in Iraq in 2008 I think is going to be very important to the long-term future of the country,” said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

The arc of progress played out in the raw statistics of U.S. casualties.

American military deaths peaked in May with 126 troops killed. It was then that the U.S. began ramping up its attacks against insurgent strongholds, leading to increased clashes in Baghdad and other key areas across central Iraq.

The 899 deaths in 2007 surpassed the previously highest death toll in 2004, when 850 U.S. troops were killed.

Army Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, was cautious about drawing conclusions.

“We’re not even close to declaring any kind of victories,” Boylan said. “There is still a lot of hard work ahead. We know, based on the enemy that we are facing, they can and do conduct what people call ‘spectacular attacks,’ which can inflict significant casualties.”

The current U.S. strategy involves shifting forces to small outposts in violent areas and winning the cooperation of local Iraqis. Fifty of these outposts exist in Baghdad alone, Boylan said.

U.S. force levels are scheduled to drop to their previous level of 130,000 troops by July 2008, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said more troops could be withdrawn from Iraq if violence levels continue to drop.

The influx of some 30,000 U.S. troops, which began in June, met one of its important goals: to allow the Iraqi government to focus on questions of governance instead of dealing only with security.

James Carafano, a security expert with the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., likened the increase in troops to the Marshall Plan that largely rebuilt Europe after World War II and demonstrated U.S. commitment to that continent.

“I think the surge made that statement to Iraqis,” Carafano said. “Here’s America, fighting an unpopular war and things aren’t going so well and we turn around and send more troops in. To the good guys and the bad guys, it was a reaffirmation that Americans aren’t going to walk away from this.”

But the Pentagon, meanwhile, will increasingly look to the uneven Iraqi security forces to carry the load in 2008 as demands for an American exit strategy grow sharper during the U.S. presidential election year.

Iran also remains a major wild card. U.S. officials believe the neighboring country has helped quiet Iraq by reducing its flow of suspected aid to Shiite fighters, including materials needed for deadly roadside bombs.

Allies are also cutting forces. Britain, the main U.S. coalition partner in Iraq, is gradually drawing down its troops. Poland and Australia are contemplating full-scale withdrawals in the coming year.

Ellie