US military deaths in Iraq near 4,000

BAGHDAD - The US military's death toll in Iraq is nearing the 4,000 mark as the conflict launched in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted regime enters its sixth year.

The latest casualty in the five-year-old conflict was a soldier who died north of Baghdad on Wednesday.

His death brings to 3,991 the number of US service members killed over the past five years. More than 29,000 others have been wounded, according to an AFP tally based on independent website www.icasualties.org.

At least 97 percent of the losses occurred after US President George W. Bush announced the end of "major combat" in Iraq on May 1, 2003, as the American military became caught between raging anti-American insurgency and brutal sectarian strife unleashed since the toppling of Saddam.

According to icasualties.org, 81.3 percent of the soldiers killed have died in attacks by Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, Sunni insurgent groups loyal to Saddam and radical Shiite militias.

The remainder died in non-combat related incidents.

Roadside bombs caused most of the casualties, with small arms fire the second biggest killer.

Around 40 percent of those killed were struck by roadside bombs, according to the website, making these weapons the main cause of fatalities.

Others died variously in car bombings, small arms fire, helicopter crashes, ambushes, rocket attacks and suicide bombings.

The deadliest year for the military was 2007 when it lost 901 troops on the back of a controversial "surge", which saw an extra 30,000 soldiers deployed in a bid to break the stranglehold of violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

This figure compares with 486 deaths in 2003, the first year of the conflict, 849 in 2004, 846 in 2005 and 822 in 2006.

Since the start of 2008, 86 soldiers have died.

US military commanders in Iraq acknowledge that putting extra troops on the ground also exposed them to more attacks.

In recent months the military has begun withdrawing the surge troops as violence levels fall across the country, with US and Iraqi officials reporting a 60-percent drop in attacks since June.

Most of the attacks in the past five years have been staged in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.

The western Sunni province of Anbar witnessed most overall casualties, with 1,282 losses since the US-led invasion, according to icasualties.org, followed by Baghdad with 1,247, Salaheddin with 375, and Diyala with 237.

In Anbar and Salaheddin the military faced a strong anti-American insurgency, while in Baghdad and Diyala it is caught in a three-way fight involving Al-Qaeda, Sunni groups loyal to Saddam and Shiite militias.

But for the past year attacks against US troops have fallen sharply in Anbar after local Sunni Arab groups joined forces with the military to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

According to the website, November 2004 remains the deadliest month for the military in Iraq.

It lost 137 troops that month when it launched a massive assault to take back the Anbar city of Fallujah, then a Sunni insurgent bastion.

The US states of California, Texas and Pennsylvania have borne the brunt of American losses, with at least 425 soldiers from California killed, 366 from Texas and 188 from Pennsylvania.

The US military is also searching for four of its soldiers missing in Iraq.

Two of them were captured in May last year after insurgents ambushed their patrol south of Baghdad in an attack which killed four other soldiers and their interpreter.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq in a later Internet message said it had kidnapped and killed the soldiers. The military still insists it is searching for them.

Apart from deaths due to hostile fire, 145 soldiers have died due to "self-inflicted wounds," the website said, indicating a large number of suicides.

The death toll also includes 102 female service members.

Between 80,000 and 89,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the conflict, according to conservative estimates by British website www.Iraqbodycount.org.

The deadliest war for the US military, aside from the two world wars, has been Vietnam, with 58,000 soldiers killed between 1964 and 1973, an average of 26 a day. On average, just over two US soldiers die every day in Iraq.

US President Bush on the eve of the anniversary defended the launch of the war, vowing no retreat as he promised US forces would triumph over Iraqi insurgents.

"Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, and this is a fight America can and must win," he said.

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03/20/2008 02:11 GMT

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