Figures released on Tuesday by the Pentagon show that more U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the end of major combat operations than during the actual war. But, defense officials insist the rising toll will not undermine U.S. resolve to create a stable and secure environment in Iraq.
Speaking to U.S. troops in Texas this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made no direct mention of the rising casualty toll among American military personnel serving in postwar Iraq.
But Mr. Rumsfeld, while optimistic about the eventual outcome, did acknowledge that there are continuing dangers even though major combat operations ended more than 100 days ago.
"The 100-plus days that have passed since Iraq's liberation have been days of both difficulty, to be sure, but also progress" he said. "There will continue to be some setbacks, I regret to say, but there will be more successes. And the outcome is not in doubt." Mr. Rumsfeld's comments came less than 24 hours before military authorities in Iraq reported the deaths of one U.S. soldier in a bomb attack on a convoy and a second in a traffic accident.
According to Pentagon statistics, those two deaths pushed the fatality toll since the end of major combat operations on May 1 to 139, one more than the total number of deaths in the serious fighting phase of the Iraq war.
But the numbers are somewhat misleading. Of the post-May 1 deaths, only 62 are attributed to hostile action. The majority of fatalities since the end of major combat operations, 77, are the result of health problems or accidents - whether vehicle accidents, drownings, suicides or accidental shootings.
Not surprisingly, far more Americans were killed in hostile action before May 1 - 116.
Some analysts and commentators believe the distinction may be of little consolation to Americans uneasy about the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq. A poll last week by Newsweek magazine, for example, found about 13 percent of those questioned feel the postwar occupation has gone well, with close to 70 percent concerned or somewhat concerned American forces may face problems in Iraq for years.
Despite this, defense officials are insistent U.S. forces will stay on until the job of restoring stability to Iraq is done.
One senior defense official says the loss of every service member is deeply felt. But this official says U.S. losses will only strengthen the resolve of the U.S.-led coalition to accomplish its mission.
"As for how long our country will have to stay in Iraq, the truth is that it is not knowable today. I wish it were," Mr. Rumsfeld said during his Texas remarks. "But it really depends on when the Iraqi people are able to get themselves on a path towards a sovereign and representative government. This much is certain: The president has said we will stay as long as it takes to finish the job."
There are close to 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq along with 22,000 troops from other countries with more non-American coalition troops preparing to be deployed. In addition, Pentagon officials say tens of thousands of Iraqis have been or are being trained for a police force, border patrol, and army. Up to 28,000 will be sent to Hungary for eight weeks of police training, under a new program.
Defense officials say this will put what they call "an Iraqi face" on the security situation, even though they concede it is unlikely to put a halt to American deaths anytime soon.