Rate of New U.S. Deaths Declining in Iraq

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American combat deaths in Iraq have been declining since late last year. Iraqi security forces now appear to be bearing the brunt of violence in the country. The decline was especially significant in February, when 55 American service personnel were killed, compared to 96 in October. More than 2,300 American military personnel have died supporting operations in Iraq.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As of yesterday, 2,317 Americans had been killed in Iraq. That number continues to climb, but the Pentagon says it's climbing more slowly. The rate of U.S. casualties has been declining since October, and that shows another way the war is changing.

NPR's Vicki O'Hara reports that more of the burden is falling on Iraqis, like the four killed today at a police station south of Baghdad.

VICKI O'HARA reporting:

Casualty figures in Iraq generally fluctuate with the political climate. For instance, last October, when Iraqis were voting on a constitution, was especially deadly for both Iraqis and Americans. But security, at least for U.S. forces, seems to be improving.

Lieutenant Colonel James Lofley(ph), a research fellow at the National Defense University, previously served on an advisory group to General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, which supervises U.S. operations in Iraq.

Lieutenant Colonel JAMES LOFLEY (Research Fellow, National Defense University): The worst year was 2004, where we had and average number of 59.5 U.S. troops killed every month, and we had wounded in action of about 665. Then in 2005, we dropped slightly in the number of soldiers killed per month, and we dropped from 665 wounded per month down to 495 was the average.

O'HARA: The improvement in security is even more apparent, if you assess American casualty figures over the past five months. Private Web sites that track casualties based on Pentagon data say that about 55 Americans were killed in February, down from 96 in October. The number of wounded last month, they say, was about half of the October figure of 605.

There are a lot of factors that could account for the reduced U.S. casualties: better armor for the troops in the field, better training, and more experience. Many of the American soldiers are on their second or third deployments.

Andrew Krepinevich is director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary assessment, which analyzes military issues. He offers another possibility.

Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): As more Iraqi forces are in the field, U.S. forces just aren't going out as much. They're sticking more to their bases.

O'HARA: U.S. military officials say that is indeed the case. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, spokesman for the Multi-National Force Command in Baghdad, says that the U.S. is trying to step back and let Iraqi security forces take the lead whenever possible.

Lieutenant Colonel BARRY JOHNSON (Spokesman, Multi-National Force Command in Baghdad): Very often, we would send in the Iraqi security forces to an area or a neighborhood, because they know it best. Because they can communicate better with the people, while the American forces will provide them some support if needed.

O'HARA: Transferring more of the burden to Iraqi security forces means that more of them are getting killed. Colonel Laughrey says the data on casualties among Iraqi security forces is less reliable than the figures on Americans. But, he says the Iraqi military and police are experiencing more casualties than in the past.

Lieutenant Colonel JAMES LAUGHREY (National Strategic Studies, National Defense University): There's a clear trend up through 2005, and it really peaked in late 2005. But the numbers have not dropped off that much. I mean, we're at 304 in July of '05, Iraqi police and military killed, and we're sitting just below 200 in January.

O'HARA: And then there are the civilian casualties. It's virtually impossible to get an accurate count, but casualty websites estimate more than 12,000 civilians were killed in the past twelve moths.

Colonel Johnson, of the Multi-National Force Command, says that as attacks on U.S. forces have diminished, insurgent attacks have increased.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHNSON: As compared to coalition forces, yes, almost 60 percent of the attacks that we see now are against civilians.

O'HARA: Civilians are an easy target. But military officials say the insurgents also have realized that attacks on civilians suit their purposes, fanning Iraq's ethnic and sectarian tensions and impeding efforts by Iraq's political leaders to form a new, unified government.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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