U.S. military death toll in Iraq hits 14-month low

BAGHDAD (AP) – The number of American troops and Iraqi civilians killed in the war fell in September to levels not seen in more than a year. The U.S. military said the lower count was at least partly a result of new strategies and the 30,000 additional U.S. forces deployed this year.

Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from a single month’s tally, the figures could suggest U.S.-led forces are making headway against extremist factions and disrupting their ability to strike back.

The U.S. military death toll for September was 64, the lowest since July 2006, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from death announcements by the American command and Pentagon.

More dramatic, however, was the decline in Iraqi civilian, police and military deaths. The figure was 988 in September – 50 percent lower than the previous month and the lowest tally since June 2006, when 847 Iraqis died.

The Iraqi death count is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported.

Nevertheless, the heartening numbers emerged just three weeks after U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus argued before a divided Congress that more time was needed for Iraq to begin seeing results from President George W. Bush’s dispatch of an additional 30,000 forces to pacify Baghdad and surrounding regions.

On Monday they issued an unusual joint statement to the Iraqi people that credited them for the decline in violence.

“We must maintain the momentum that together we have achieved. We are confident that you and your fellow citizens will continue to display determination, that Iraqi security forces will remain vigilant and that additional Iraqis will join our combined effort,” they said.

Their message opened with greetings to the Iraqi people during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims focus on their spiritual lives and fast from dawn to dusk.

“Please know that we remain absolutely committed to this effort … Much work lies ahead of us. Despite the challenges, we can, together, achieve success,” the two men wrote in the statement signed and dated by each.

Of particular note, the message referred to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by his honorific, Sayyid Muqtada. Sayyid is a title designating a religious figure as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

“We also sincerely hope that the cease-fire declared by the Sayyid Muqtada will continue to be observed and be further extended to all members of Jaysh al-Mahdi (Arabic for Mahdi Army),” Crocker and Petraeus wrote.

After a violent confrontation between the Mahdi Army and guards at a religious shrine in the holy city of Karbala in August, al-Sadr said he was standing down his fighters for six months to reorganize.

Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for Petraeus, said there was “no silver bullet or one thing” responsible for the declining death tolls.

But he credited increased U.S. troop strength, saying that had allowed American forces to step up operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent and militia fighters.

Anthony H. Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon and analyst with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the decline in violent deaths was a positive trend that does seem to be related to the increase in U.S. forces. But he said it was too early to know if it will last.

“We tend to focus too much on killing rather than wounded, on extreme acts of violence rather than patterns of displacement or ethnic cleansing.” He said that when looking at overall stability in Iraq, killings are only one measure.

“This is, I think, one of the great difficulties. It’s a very complex pattern of fighting and people look for simple statistical bottom lines rather than the overall pattern,” he said.

“You know you’ve won when you’ve won, not when you get the first set of positive indicators,” he said.

While civilian deaths were sharply lower last month, Baghdad remained the center of violence in percentage terms.

For this year, 54 percent of all sectarian killings occurred in the capital and suburbs. That figure declined to just above 49 percent in September.