A U.S. Army general on Sunday forecast a rise in deaths among American forces in the coming months, a prediction underscored by the announcement that a roadside bomb had killed six U.S. soldiers and a foreign journalist north of Baghdad. Five other American troops died elsewhere over the weekend.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said casualties will climb as American troops dig into enemy territory as part of a stepped-up military operation ordered by President Bush in January. Lynch, who oversees a swath of territory to the south and east of Baghdad, gave his bleak prediction on the heels of the deadliest month so far this year for American forces in Iraq.
In April, 104 troops were killed, only the fourth time since the beginning of 2005 that U.S. deaths exceeded 100 in a single month. At least 25 troops have been killed so far in May, a grim start to a month in which Democrats are expected to keep up pressure on the White House to plan a withdrawal from Iraq.
The latest deaths came on a bloody day for Iraqi security forces and civilians as well. At least 58 Iraqis died in a string of attacks, including 42 killed when a car bomb tore through a Baghdad market.
North of the capital, in the city of Samarra, 12 police officers died when a suicide bomber rammed a car into the police headquarters.
Witnesses said scores of vehicles filled with people waving black flags representing the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim insurgent group, cruised menacing through the city before the attack. The vehicle occupants fired on police stations, killing one officer before the car bomber struck.
Those killed in the blast included Samarra’s police chief, Col. Jaleel Nahi Hassoun.
In February 2006, a bomb shattered Samarra’s Golden Mosque, one of the holiest shrines to Shiite Muslims, in an attack that unleashed fierce sectarian warfare between Shiites and Sunnis.
In his comments, Lynch echoed other military warnings that insurgent groups linked to al-Qaeda were escalating attacks in hopes of igniting fresh Sunni-Shiite warfare.
“I believe (al-Qaeda’s) out there looking for another Golden Mosque,” Lynch said.
Lynch gave a bleak assessment of the situation on the ground. In coming months, he said, as the remainder of 28,000 additional U.S. troops move into place to enforce the U.S. security plan, American casualties will go up.
“There are going to be increased casualties during this surge because we’re taking the fight to the enemy,” Lynch told journalists.
He said troops in his area of operation were facing a “thinking enemy” that had been on the ground far longer than most U.S. soldiers and had adopted techniques to trip up the Americans, such as planting roadside explosives too deep to be detected by high-tech equipment.
Lynch added that 13 of his troops had been killed since coming to Iraq in March and said most of his troops had died as a result of armor-piercing roadside bombs that U.S. officials allege are coming from Iran.
Lynch repeated recent U.S. assertions that agents from Iran, a Shiite country, are providing weapons to Sunni as well as Shiite insurgents in an apparent attempt to fuel maximum chaos in Iraq. He said evidence in his area indicated “Iranian influence” on both sides of the sectarian divide, in terms of weaponry, training and technology. He would not go into detail.
Iran has denied involvement in Iraq’s unrest.
Lynch praised the progress of Iraqi security forces undergoing training to take over from U.S. and other foreign troops, but he said forces – particularly the Iraqi police – needed more time before they could manage the job.
“If we walk away … before the Iraqi Security Forces are ready to stand up and maintain that security, it’s going to be a mess. And that indeed is going to take some time,” he said.
The latest attacks showed the challenges facing troops.
Eight U.S. troops died in combat Sunday, including the six killed in Diyala province, a Sunni stronghold north and east of Baghdad, when a roadside bomb exploded under their vehicle.
A journalist traveling with them was killed, the military said in a brief statement. It did not identify the journalist, but a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Chris Garver, said later that the victim was neither American nor Iraqi.
Diyala has seen a spike in U.S. troop deaths since the start of the security plan, which drove many insurgents out of neighboring Baghdad and Anbar province. So far this year, at least 60 American soldiers have been killed in the province, compared with 20 all of last year.
Two roadside bombs, one in northern Baghdad and one in the southern part of the city, killed the other two soldiers Sunday.
Another soldier died of noncombat related injuries.
The military also announced the deaths of two Marines in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, on Saturday.
The latest deaths raised to at least 3,365 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.