Under increased US pressure, an Iraqi crackdown on Iranian-backed Shiite militias has helped produce a previously elusive goal: For the first time since the US invasion of Iraq, an entire month has passed without a single US service member dying.
The milestone is particularly remarkable because it comes after 14 troops were killed in July, making it the most deadly month for the US in three years; and it has occurred amid a frightening campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations from Sunni insurgents that killed hundreds of Iraqis, resurrecting the specter of the worst days of sectarian fighting.
“If you had thought about a month without a death back during the surge in 2007 it would have been pretty hard to imagine because we were losing soldiers every day, dozens a week,” said Colonel Douglas Crissman, who is in charge of US forces in four provinces of southern Iraq and oversaw a battalion in Anbar Province during the troop increase, or surge. “I think this shows how far the Iraqi security forces have come.”
A total of 4,465 US soldiers have died in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, according to Defense Department figures.
US military commanders attribute the drop in deaths to the Iraqi government finally pushing back against Iran and the Shiite militias, as well as aggressive unilateral strikes by US forces.
If last month is not just a statistical blip, it could also be connected to ongoing negotiations between US and Iraqi officials over whether to leave some troops behind after the end of the year, experts said. Although all sides in Iraq have said they want the US to leave, each has some interest in seeing that some troops stay behind.
The Iraqi government continues to rely on US forces and expertise to preserve security. Shiite militias would lose some of their rationale for existence and al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents could lose a useful foil.
For the US, domestic political concerns would also make it easier to sell an extension to a war-weary public if there were fewer casualties.
As much as the Iraqis have clamped down on the militias, their security forces are still struggling to thwart attacks from al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents. On Aug. 15, those insurgents pulled off a devastating series of coordinated attacks across Iraq, killing more than 90 people and wounding more than 300. None of those attacks, however, were aimed at the US.
Since then, there have been several suicide bomb attacks, including one inside a mosque on Sunday that killed more than 30 Iraqi civilians.
Meanwhile, last month was the deadliest for US troops in Afghanistan since the war began nearly 10 years ago, with the death toll at 66 troops, according to the Pentagon.
The downing of a Chinook helicopter by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, in which 30 troops died — including a unit of elite Navy SEAL commandos — accounted for almost half the total.
The death toll surpassed the previous record of 65 killed in July last year, according to Defense Department figures as of Wednesday.
Homemade bombs planted by insurgents remain the leading cause of death for US and other foreign troops, amid elaborate efforts by the NATO-led force to detect the improvised explosives.
Despite the deployment of US and NATO reinforcements, the insurgency in Afghanistan has grown every year since it was launched by the remnants of the Taliban in late 2001, after their regime was toppled in a US-led invasion.
About 10,000 US troops are due to leave Afghanistan this year, part of a gradual drawdown through the end of 2014.
US President Barack Obama said in June that another 23,000 US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer, leaving behind a 65,000-strong force and effectively ending the surge of troops ordered in late 2009.
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