By Will Dunham
The U.S. military death toll in Iraq fell for a third straight month in July to one of the lower levels of the 3-year-old war despite rising violence that prompted the Pentagon to expand the U.S. force.
At least 44 U.S. troops were killed in July, well below the war’s average U.S. monthly death toll of just under 64. A 132,000-strong U.S. force is battling a tenacious insurgency as sectarian violence surges, fueling concern over civil war.
There has been a steady increase in attacks since January and February to a current level of more than 120 daily against U.S. and other foreign troops, U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces and civilians, said Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
Civilians accounted for nearly 70 percent of all casualties, Johnson said.
"American troops are no longer the primary focus of the people perpetuating the violence inside Iraq. They have become a secondary target," said defense analyst Charles Pena, a senior fellow with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.
In the past two years, only two months had lower U.S. death tolls than July.
Top congressional Democrats, seeking to present a united party front, wrote President George W. Bush urging him to start pulling U.S. troops from Iraq this year, but did not propose a time frame for completing a phased withdrawal.
The letter, signed by the Senate and House of Representatives Democratic leadership and other key senior Democrats including Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, asked Bush to launch a new push to stabilize Iraq through diplomacy and rebuilding.
"Iraqi political leaders must be informed that American patience, blood and treasure are not unlimited," the Democrats wrote in the letter released on Monday. "U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel."
The war’s unpopularity among many Americans has weighed for months on Bush’s job approval rating.
The Pentagon said the U.S. military death toll in the war, which began in March 2003, stood at 2,578, with about 19,000 troops wounded. About 230 British, Italian and other foreign troops have been killed in the war as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis.
The 2006 rate of U.S. military deaths, 1.88 deaths per day, is lower than the past two years — 2.31 per day in 2005 and 2.32 in 2004 — but slightly ahead of 1.69 per day in 2003.
Roadside bombs, known by the military as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the biggest cause of U.S. casualties.
"Our declining death tolls by themselves don’t justify too much hopefulness unless you at least see the Iraqi security situation staying steady or getting better at the same time. And it’s not. It’s getting worse," said Brookings Institution analyst Michael O’Hanlon.
The Pentagon last week boosted the size of the force by extending by up to four months the tour of 3,500 soldiers due to have returned home after a year in Iraq. The move suggested any significant drawdown of the U.S. force was unlikely in the coming months.
Some analysts said U.S. forces appeared to be hunkering down and reducing exposure to attack, which Johnson disputed. He said the exposure of U.S. forces to attack had not changed significantly in the past several months.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen)
© Reuters 2006