San Diego Union Tribune

May 2, 2006

April proves to be deadly month for Marines

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – April was the deadliest month in a year and a half for the Marine forces in Iraq.

At least 32 personnel under the command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died last month, the highest toll of Marines and sailors since November 2004, and a sharp jump from the relatively low casualties of the previous four months. That brought the total of the Marine and Navy dead since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom to at least 741.

At least 42 U.S. soldiers also died in Iraq last month, many of them in Army units fighting alongside the Marines in the volatile Anbar Province. The total of 74 was the highest U.S. death toll in Iraq in five months and reversed an apparent steady decline in American casualties.

The sudden jump in casualties came even though there were none of the major offensives against entrenched insurgents that have resulted in heavy casualties in the past. There also are a lot more Iraqi security forces available to share the burden of combat.

The Marines have changed their policy and no longer announce the cause of combat deaths, so it was impossible to tell how many of the deaths were inflicted by improvised explosive devices, which have been the major source of casualties, and how many by gunshots.

For the Camp Pendleton-based 1st MEF, the death toll was aggravated by a deadly truck accident April 2 in which six Marines and one sailor died.

Military analysts were unable to pinpoint a reason for the jump in deaths.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that sharp swings in numbers were possible because the overall casualty rates have been comparatively low.

“When you have such a low base of casualties, you can have really serious fluctuations,” he said.

“Anything can change the numbers. You can have a Fallujah,” Cordesman said, referring to the deadly fight U.S. force waged in 2004 to crush an insurgent stronghold in Anbar. “You can have rising civil violence. Or sometimes someone finds a new way of setting off IEDs” that takes time to counter.

Although Marine commanders have emphasized the increased number of Iraqi soldiers and policemen helping them in Anbar, Cordesman noted that, “the truth of the matter is, every time Iraqi forces are deployed, Marines or (U.S.) soldiers are deployed with them.”

And because the Iraqi soldiers have less training and no heavy weapons, “there's always going to be situations they can't handle,” he said.

Daniel Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institution, said the surge in casualties could be “an anomaly.” Or it “could reflect a renewed effort on the part of the insurgents” reacting to the emergence of an Iraqi government.

Other evidence for that, Goure suggested, is the recent release of video or audiotapes from senior al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, condemning the Iraqi government and exhorting the insurgents to fight.

Although U.S. commanders have not announced any large offensive operations, Goure said the higher casualties also could stem from the Marines being more aggressive in trying to occupy parts of Anbar, which has been one of the strongholds for Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadists.