American military deaths in Iraq have hit their lowest point in 20 months, with commanders and soldiers saying the numbers show marked improvement in the security situation throughout the country.
The Pentagon has thus far reported 39 U.S. servicemember deaths for October, down from the 65 reported in September, which itself had been the lowest in 16 months. The October number is the lowest since March 2006, when 32 deaths were reported.
Three more deaths were reported at press time, though a final count could not be confirmed.
The number of coalition combat deaths in Iraq dropped in October to the lowest monthly total since February 2004, officials said Thursday.
Still, 2007 is shaping up to be the deadliest year in Iraq since the war began. As of the end of October, 842 deaths have been reported by the Pentagon. With two months left in the year, the total figure is likely to surpass the 849 deaths reported in 2004, the previous yearly high.
Military officials attributed the declining deaths over the past two months largely to two factors: the “surge” of additional troops in and around Baghdad; and the turnaround in Anbar province, where Sunni tribes have — at least temporarily — aligned themselves with U.S. forces and brought relative calm to what was once the deadliest area for American forces in Iraq.
“With the civilian populace feeling more secure and cooperating with both Iraqi security forces and coalition forces, this has been able to keep the enemy off balance and our casualty trends began to decline,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
In order to continue this trend, coalition troops must continue to put pressure on extremists, deny them safe havens and go after their leaders, in order to allow the Iraqis to reconcile their differences, Odierno said.
“Once we get to that part, I think we’ll get to irreversible momentum. We’re not there yet, but we are driving in that direction,” he said.
The 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division has suffered its first two deaths in more than a month Wednesday, but U.S. military officers in northern Iraq said the low number of U.S. deaths in October was a definite sign that insurgents had been dealt a severe blow in Ninevah Province.
“I think it’s because of the ‘surge,’” said Maj. Mark Reeves, operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. “If you’ve got more troops on the ground, you can kill more bad guys, cover more ground and secure more of the population.”
Col. Stephen Twitty, 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division commander, said that as far as Ninevah was concerned, the low U.S. death rate was attributable to two things — the improving capabilities of Iraqi security forces in the province, and his troops’ dogged pursuit of the enemy.
“We’ve lost blood in a bad way, but because we’ve worked hard to get to where we are now, the casualty rate has gone down,” he said. The brigade has lost 31 soldiers during this deployment, which is scheduled to end in December.
But Reeves cautioned that it was difficult to gauge the extent to which U.S. forces have degraded the insurgents’ offensive capabilities, saying that only time would tell.
The reduced number of deaths track with a reduction in attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, according to a report issued earlier this week by the Government Accountability Office.
While the report was critical of slow progress on political and reconstruction programs, it found insurgent attacks had hit the lowest point since early 2006. The GAO report said total enemy attacks were down from around 5,300 in June to around 3,000 in September, still an average of nearly 100 a day.
According to military officials, the total number of attacks in the Baghdad area was 2,455 in January; by October, that number had fallen to 598. Also, Iraqi ministries reported that 554 Iraqis had been killed in October, the lowest tally since February 2006, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine launched sectarian violence throughout the country.
Iraqi deaths peaked in January, when the ministries reported 1,992 Iraqi deaths.
“Have we turned a corner? It might be a little too early to say that,” Maj. Winfield Danielson said to The Associated Press. “It’s certainly encouraging.”
Danielson also pointed to an order by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army militia for up to six months and to have its members refrain from attacking U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
While attributing the decline in military deaths to the “surge,” U.S. military officials also have acknowledged that the push led to the bloodiest two-month period for American troops since the war began.
As U.S. troops pushed into areas previously dominated by insurgents — and moving into smaller, less-protected bases in the midst of population centers — deaths in April and May of this year totaled 230.
Stripes’ Jeff Schogol contributed to this report from the Pentagon. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.