The U.S. military announced Tuesday that five soldiers and a sailor had been killed a day earlier, making 2007 the deadliest year for U...
BAGHDAD — The U.S. military announced Tuesday that five soldiers and a sailor had been killed a day earlier, making 2007 the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the start of the war in Iraq.
The record death toll of at least 853 U.S. military personnel killed this year underscores the high cost of the U.S. troop increase, launched in February, which has begun to drive down the sectarian violence that once gripped much of the country.
“The strategy was to interject our soldiers between the Iraqi citizens and the terrorists, insurgents and militias,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, chief of plans for U.S. forces in Baghdad. “A regrettable consequence of that is your casualties go up.”
But the grim milestone belied a much more optimistic trend: Troop casualties have declined sharply since early summer. In October, the death toll for U.S. troops fell to 39, its lowest level since March 2006, according to The Associated Press, which tracks military fatalities more rapidly than the Pentagon makes its numbers public.
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Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, a battalion commander in western Baghdad, said fighting in the spring had helped secure local neighborhoods. He said there had not been a roadside bomb attack in his area of operations for three months and no mortar or rocket attacks since July.
A senior Navy officer, meanwhile, announced the planned release of nine Iranian prisoners and was at pains to say that a major cache of Iranian-made weapons and bombs displayed for reporters Tuesday appeared to have been shipped into Iraq before Tehran made a vow to stop the flow of armaments.
A decline in Iranian weapons deliveries also could be one of several factors for the decrease in Iraqi and U.S. deaths the past two months.
Two of the Iranians who will be freed were among five captured in January in a U.S. raid on an Iranian government facility in Irbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
U.S. officials said the five were members of Iran’s elite Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran said they were diplomats helping prepare for a consular office.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multi-National Force-Iraq’s communications division, said the decision to release the nine was made after they were determined not to be a threat to U.S. forces.
Across Baghdad, the number of U.S. troops killed has plummeted from 58 in both May and June to 14 last month, according to Ollivant.
In other indicators of a decline in violence, Smith said mortar and rocket attacks have decreased from more than 1,000 a month in May and June to less than 400 in October.
And the number of roadside bombs across Iraq has tumbled from about 65 a day in the fall of 2006 to fewer than 30 a day now, Smith said.
But the deaths of the six troops Monday were a collective reminder of the dangers the U.S. military still faces.
In the northern province of Tamim, four soldiers were killed by an explosion near their vehicle while they conducted combat operations, the military said. In nearby Salahuddin province, a sailor was killed by an explosion, it said. And in western Anbar province, once a stronghold of Sunni extremism but now relatively calm, the military said a soldier was killed while conducting combat operations.
The attacks brought the total death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq this year to 853, higher than the 850 killed in 2004, when most of the casualties came during large-scale conventional battles, according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, violence against Iraqis continued.
Near Samarra, a suicide car bomber struck a police commando checkpoint, killing five policemen and one civilian. And in Mosul, a member of the governing council, Aref Youssif al-Shabki, was assassinated, an Interior Ministry official said.
The U.S. military said Iraqi troops had discovered 22 bodies in a mass grave northwest of Baghdad during a joint operation Saturday. It was the second mass grave found in the area in less than a month.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.