US casualties in Iraq may be double reported figures

TRUE COST: The total death toll is 248, including accidents and suicides, while the number of injured could be in the thousands


Tue, Aug 05, 2003 - Page 1

US military casualties from the occupation of Iraq have been more than twice the number most Americans have been led to believe because of an extraordinarily high number of accidents, suicides and other non-combat deaths in the ranks that have gone largely unreported in the media.

Since May 1, when President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations, 52 American soldiers have been killed by hostile fire, according to Pentagon figures quoted in almost all the war coverage. But the total number of US deaths from all causes is much higher: 112.

The other unreported cost of the war for the US is the number of American wounded: 827 since Operation Iraqi Freedom began.

Unofficial figures are in the thousands. About half have been injured since Bush's triumphant appearance on board the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln at the beginning of May. Many of the wounded have lost limbs.

The figures are politically sensitive. The number of American combat deaths since the start of the war is 166 -- 19 more than the death toll in the first Gulf war.

The passing of that benchmark last month erased the perception, popular at the time Baghdad fell, that the US had scored an easy victory.

According to a Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans still think Iraq was worth going to war over, but a quarter want the troops out now and another third want a withdrawal if the casualty figures continue to mount.

In fact, the total death toll this time is 248 -- including accidents and suicides -- and as the number of non-combat deaths and serious injuries becomes more widely known, the erosion of public confidence is likely to continue, posing a threat to Bush's prospects of re-election, which at the beginning of May had seemed a foregone conclusion.

Military observers say it is unusual, even in a "low-intensity" guerrilla war such as the situation seen in Iraq, for non-combat deaths to outnumber combat casualties.

The Pentagon does not tabulate the cause of those deaths, but according to a US Web site that has been tracking official reports, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 23 American soldiers have died in car or helicopter accidents since May 1, while 12 have been killed in accidents with weapons or explosives.

Three deaths have been categorized as "possible suicides," three have died from illness and three from drowning. The rest are unexplained.

Wounded American soldiers continue to be flown back to the US at a relentless rate, in twice-weekly transport flights to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.

Hospital staff are working 70- or 80-hour weeks, and the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington is so full that it has taken over beds normally reserved for cancer patients to handle the influx, according to a report on CBS television.

Meanwhile, at the nearby national naval medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, new Marine injuries are delivered almost daily by a medical plane known as the Nightingale.