San Diego Union Tribune

December 2, 2004

Marines pay a bloody price in 'taking the fight to the enemy'

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – At least 83 Marines were killed and hundreds more were wounded during last month's fight to destroy the insurgent stronghold in Fallujah. A Navy corpsman serving with the Marines also died.

The death toll, confirmed by the Marine Corps and the Navy yesterday, represents by far the bloodiest period for the Marines since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

It eclipses the previous high of 52 Marines killed in April, which also saw heavy fighting in Fallujah, and the 58 who died during the 42 days of fighting that took down Saddam Hussein's regime last year.

The Marines have now counted 368 deaths in Iraq, nearly 30 percent of the U.S. total of 1,256 reported killed in combat or accidents as of yesterday. The Navy has reported 19 killed in Iraq, about evenly split between medically trained corpsmen and Seabee construction specialists.

Gunnery Sgt. Kristine Scarber, a Marine spokeswoman, did not have figures on the number of Marines wounded in November, but she said 3,129 have been wounded since the start of Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003.

If that ratio of killed to wounded held up, the Marines would have had more than 700 wounded in November.

The Navy has reported 157 wounded in Iraq, a Navy spokeswoman said.

Since the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq, 9,552 U.S. service members have been wounded in action, according to the Defense Department's weekly tally.

Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,118 members of the U.S. military have died, according to The Associated Press.

That includes at least 875 deaths resulting from hostile action, according to the military's numbers.

The number of Marine fatalities in November accounted for 60 percent of last month's U.S. death toll of at least 136 – also a new high – even though the Marines make up only 18 percent of the U.S. forces in Iraq.

"It really proved that our Marines were taking the fight to the enemy. As a result, we would suffer more casualties," Scarber said.

Three defense analysts agreed with that assessment and said the disproportionate death toll was a result of the Marines bearing the major burden of the intense urban fighting in Fallujah, rather than any failure of their tactics, leadership or equipment.

"We are carrying the offensive to the enemy. In that case, especially when fighting in a city, you can expect higher casualties," said Robert Work, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"I think it's mostly the fact that the MEF was the most heavily involved in this operation" (in Fallujah), analyst Jay Farrar said, referring to the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which commands the Marines in Iraq.

Although the Marines account for about 25,000 of the U.S. force of 138,000 in Iraq, they contributed about two-thirds of the troops that fought their way through the narrow streets of Fallujah last month.

"As a norm, the Marines tend to be a bit more aggressive than the Army, but you have to keep in perspective the nature of the operation in Fallujah," added Farrar, an official and analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Work and Farrar both are retired Marine officers. But Daniel Goure, a national security analyst at the Lexington Institution, also said the Marines' high casualty count "was a reflection of the kind of fighting they had to do."

And it was "par for the course for serious urban combat, particularly when you don't want to level the town," Goure said.

"To some extent, the high casualty count was due to the Marines' desire to minimize civilian casualties" and damage to the buildings, he said.

"Despite the (media) images of bombing and devastation, this was a restrained operation, and one of the consequences of restrained tactics is higher casualties."

In major urban combat in previous wars, infantry assaults normally were accompanied by massive aerial bombing or intense artillery barrages.

But the Marine and Army forces that assaulted Fallujah used limited numbers of precision bombs, closely controlled artillery and direct fire from tanks and armored vehicles to reduce the damage to the city.

Farrar conceded that the casualty statistics for Fallujah "are pretty ugly."

"But they don't seem to be having a negative impact on the force," Farrar said. "The troops still seem committed to the mission."

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