Bloody Month in Iraq, Despite U.S. Troop 'Surge'

At least 122 Americans were killed in Iraq in May, the third-highest monthly toll since the U.S.-led invasion. An rise in forces was aimed at giving the Iraqi government a chance to end internal conflicts. Is it working?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is June 1st, which means one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq is over. At least 122 Americans were killed in May, and there's little indication this trend is going to change soon. NPR's Jamie Tarabay is covering the story in Baghdad.

And Jamie, what kind of fighting is getting Americans killed?

JAMIE TARABAY: The closed quarters that the American troops are finding themselves in lately because of this new surge that began in the middle of February has American soldiers out in the streets off Baghdad fighting often directly face to face with a lot of these insurgents.

The number of IED attacks, the improvised explosive devices that have hit American troops over the last few months, that number has just gone up and up and up. It was 50 dead in March from IED attacks, in April it was 65, and in May it was 72.

INSKEEP: Those last numbers about improvised explosive devices - this is something that the U.S. military has focused enormous effort on battling, and you're saying that in recent months, anyway, in terms of the raw numbers of killed, the enemy, the insurgents are killing more.

TARABAY: Yes, and they're getting better at killing more soldiers in single incidents. We've been seeing a lot of IED attacks that are claiming four, six, eight soldiers in one separate attack. There was a time last year when these IEDs weren't having barely any impact at all. But now they're getting smarter, they're getting more sophisticated, they have better weaponry. Having said that, though, the military says that they are finding roughly half the number of the IED so there's still the other half that is killing the soldiers.

INSKEEP: And Jamie, as we talk about these 122 American deaths, minimum, in May, a lot of them, of course, are taking place in Baghdad, where you are, in the center of the country, but if we imagine a map of the rest of Iraq, where else are Americans in combat and being killed?

TARABAY: In the west, in Anbar province, in an area which we keep hearing this great success about; the Sunni tribal leaders have made a pact with American military to start battling al-Qaida-linked insurgents and start joining with the coalition and with the Iraqi government. And northeast of Baghdad, in Diyala province, where the surge is pushing insurgents out of Baghdad into this area; that also is a place where a lot of troops are being killed.

INSKEEP: So American troops are running more risks. They're doing it for a purpose; the stated purpose is to provide a little bit of security and give Iraq's political leaders a little bit of room to reconcile. Is that working?

TARABAY: The Iraqi parliament met for three days this week. They are still debating whether they're going to take two months off at the beginning of July as opposed to a month off. They claim that they're under pressure from American officials to delay or shorten their vacation time to put through crucial legislation that they haven't begun to even talk about yet. So no.

INSKEEP: And what's happening with the Iraqi death toll while all these takes place?

TARABAY: For a while to, I guess, indicate that the surge was working, the American military pointed to the lower rate of sectarian killings that has now gone back up again.

The Baghdad morgue has reported receiving nearly 600 bodies in April and in the month of May it was also around 560; these are unidentified bodies dumped in different parts of the capital, showing signs of torture, killed execution style - trademark sectarian violence. And that is increasing again. So whatever lull there may have been at the beginning of this surge, it looks like that trend is reversing again.

INSKEEP: Some hard numbers from NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. Jamie, thanks very much.

TARABAY: Thank you.

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May Is Third-Deadliest Month for U.S. in Iraq War

At least 122 American troops died in Iraq in May, making it the third deadliest month for the United States since the war began.

And as more troops head to Iraq, even higher numbers of U.S. casualties are expected.

In recent months, greater numbers of soldiers have been heading into dangerous ground — the neighborhoods — working in small outposts with Iraqi forces.

More and more of Col. Mike Galloucis' military police from Fort Hood, Texas, are moving into these situations, outside their fortified bases around Baghdad.

"The tactic of getting them out on the street more, so they are physically out on the street — walking on the street, and ... out there and interacting with the populace — does slightly increase the vulnerability of the soldier," Galloucis said.

His police suffered casualties in May, although he won't say how many. He doesn't want to give insurgents too much information.

Snipers are a threat, he says, but the greatest problem is the roadside bomb.

"Everyone has to remember that we are fighting a very savvy adversary that's constantly adapting their tactics, techniques and procedures," Galloucis said. "They are making very lethal roadside bombs."

Earlier in the spring, the improvised bombs accounted for about 60 percent of American deaths. Now it's more than 80 percent.

"The Improvised Explosive Device is the enemy's weapon of choice and that is part of the intense combat," said Brig. Gen. Tony Tata, who is part of a Pentagon team that is searching for ways to defeat the makeshift bombs.

"We find about 50 percent of the IEDs that are out there, so we believe we are experiencing success," Tata said.

Tata acknowledged that as the Pentagon works to come up with a solution, the insurgents are adapting.

"You know, the enemy employs a wide array of these tactics, and he morphs, and as we get good at one thing, he tries to do something else," Tata said.

It's not just in Baghdad, where there are spikes in American casualties. The violence and the number of roadside bombs have increased in Diyala province to the north – and in Kirkuk, even farther north.

"This war is getting more intense," said Tony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "It is getting more intense than it was towards the end of 2006."

In addition to the number of deaths, the number of wounded is increasing at a greater monthly rate than earlier in the war, Cordesman said. And more than half of those wounded suffer wounds serious enough that they can't return to duty.

Just last week, President Bush said he expects casualties to rise in the coming weeks and months.

Part of the reason is that about 30,000 American troops that make up part of the "surge" in forces will be patrolling in Iraq in an effort to tamp down the sectarian violence — so Iraqis have the breathing space to settle their political differences.

Galloucis says the American troops are starting to make a difference in Baghdad neighborhoods, such as Karada.

"Karada has become a very nice area," Galloucis said. "The interesting thing — it is an area where Sunni, Shia and Christians live among each other without fighting. There are nice restaurants in this area, clean streets, there are markets and new construction all around you."

Cordesman said the real issue isn't whether neighborhoods are getting safer. It's when — and if — the Iraqis can reconcile. So far, there has been little progress.

"If this goes on into the summer and into the fall and the Iraqi government hasn't made real progress toward reconciliation, it's going to be very hard to keep supporting the effort we have," Cordesman said.

The top military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, will issue a report on whether the troop surge is succeeding in September.

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