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For troops in Iraq, the deadliest year

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- This year has become the deadliest for American soldiers in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, after the U.S. military announced yesterday the deaths of five troops and a sailor in roadside bombings.

The attacks brought the number of U.S. soldiers killed this year to at least 853, eclipsing the previous record of 850 set in 2004, according to an Associated Press count. With more than seven weeks left in the year, the toll was on pace to far outstrip any previous year.

At least 3,856 U.S. troops have died since the conflict began in March 2003.

The new benchmark came as the U.S. and Iraqi governments have been reporting progress in securing the country and moving toward fresh steps to rebuild it. After a heavy toll among soldiers earlier this year, U.S. officials have been encouraged by two consecutive months of declines that dropped troop deaths to their lowest monthly level since March 2006. Deaths among civilians attacked by insurgents or militias are down, raising hopes that Iraq violence might have turned a corner.

The 38 U.S. military personnel killed in October were about half as many as the 65 recorded the previous month.

In addition to the troop buildup that increased U.S. forces by nearly 30,000 soldiers, U.S. officials pursued a new strategy that put troops at greater exposure than in the months before. The military moved large numbers of troops off bases and stationed them in outposts in the communities they were assigned to safeguard, leading to a spike in deaths earlier in the year.

"We knew going into this that with the new strategy was a potential for more casualties," said Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq. "When the strategy became to protect the civilian population, that automatically increased the risk to our forces, because you have to be out in the population to do that."

The fatalities were pushed up by particularly bloody months in April, May and June, each of which saw more than 100 troop deaths. May's toll of 126 was the third-highest since the invasion.

The U.S. military released few details about the attacks reported yesterday and withheld the victims' identities pending notification of their families. All died Monday.

One American was killed while conducting combat operations in Anbar province. Four others were killed when a bomb exploded near their vehicle in former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, in Salahuddin province. The sailor was killed by an explosion in Salahuddin.

Meanwhile, at a briefing yesterday to announce advances in finding and destroying weapons caches, a spokesman said the U.S. military intends to release nine Iranians in custody.

The spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, said the Iranians have been "assessed to have no continuing value" and do not pose a further threat to Iraq's security. He did not say whether there were others who would remain in U.S. custody.

One cache found by Iraqi and U.S. soldiers included more than 1,000 mortar rounds, hundreds of which had been modified to use in roadside bombs, 3,000 detonators and 59 grenade launchers. The U.S. also reported killing eight suspected militants and capturing 10 others during operations yesterday in central and northern Iraq.

Military officials said a joint Iraqi-U.S. mission reported finding a mass grave containing 22 bodies near Tharthar Lake northwest of Baghdad on Saturday. The area is used as a base by insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq. Two facilities for making car bombs were found and destroyed during the operation, and 30 people were detained.

Christian Berthelsen writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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