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4,000th US Military Casualty Marked as Symbolic Moment of Iraq War

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When a roadside bomb killed four American soldiers in Baghdad Sunday night it brought the U.S. military death toll in Iraq to 4,000. It was a symbolic moment, particularly coming during a period of reduced violence, and just two weeks before a major policy assessment by senior U.S. military and civilian officials. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

It was a typical announcement from the coalition command.

"Four Multi-National Division-Baghdad soldiers were killed at approximately 10 p.m. March 23 after terrorists attacked them with an improvised-explosive device in southern Baghdad while conducting a mounted vehicular patrol. One additional soldier was injured from this attack. The soldiers' names are being withheld pending notification of next of kin..."

But the impact was not typical. The deaths of those four soldiers brought the U.S. military death toll in Iraq to 4,000, and they received prominent media coverage.

Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged the milestone, but added this.

"No casualty is more or less significant than another," he said. "Each soldier, Marine, airman and sailor is equally precious and each loss of life is equally tragic."

President Bush called Monday a "day of reflection" following the 4,000th U.S. military death in Iraq. But he also made clear it will not change his overall view of the conflict.

"I have vowed in the past and I will vow so long as I'm president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain, that in fact there is an outcome that will merit the sacrifice," he said.

President Bush spoke after a two-hour meeting with senior military commanders during which he heard their recommendations about Iraq strategy and troop levels for the next six months. The recommendations and the president's decisions will be made public in about two weeks.

The president said he is determined to see "victory" in Iraq, which he defined as the survival of a new democracy, a more secure America and a world more likely to be at peace in the 21st century.

One of the men charged with accomplishing that is Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, commander of a U.S. combat brigade operating south of Baghdad.

"Anytime you lose a soldier, of course, that's a horrible thing and it hits hard," he said. "I've seen the full spectrum of loss, from the north all the way down through where I am now in Baghdad. And it's difficult."

Speaking via satellite from his operating base, Colonel Caraccilo said violence and casualties are down significantly in his area since the surge of U.S. forces and the change in counterinsurgency strategy last year. He says attacks are down from more than 100 per week to about 12, and while the previous American unit in the area took 60 casualties during its deployment, his unit has taken just one since it deployed six months ago.

But the colonel attributes some of the reduction in casualties to better equipment, particularly new heavily armored M-RAP vehicles.

"Yesterday, an M-RAP was hit, and because the M-RAP has such great survivability capability, the soldiers basically just walked away," he said. "And if they didn't have that equipment, a month ago they'd have been in a Humvee, all would have died, probably."

The 4,000th U.S. military casualty in Iraq also had significance for critics of the war. The policy director of the National Security Network, Ilan Goldenberg, says it is more evidence of the cost of a wrongheaded effort.

"The question is less about the 4,000 lives, which is the tremendous cost that we've already paid and a sacrifice, but the question is about 4,001, and 4,002, and going beyond that," Goldenberg said. "What we really need to be doing is making very clear that we're not staying and that they have to come to some kind of an agreement, or they have to face the consequences."

Goldenberg says the war in Iraq has not made the United States safer, and on the contrary has detracted from the fight against al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, strained the U.S. military and emboldened U.S. adversaries in Iran.

President Bush's commander in Iraq, General David and his ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, will likely face such criticism when they testify before congressional committees next month. They are expected to report that while casualty rates are down for U.S. troops and for Iraqi troops and civilians, insurgents are still able to carry out attacks. And they are expected to urge caution on the question of further U.S. troop withdrawals after the surge ends in July.

Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman put it this way on Monday.

"The forces that do not want to see Iraq move forward with a representative government, as a peaceful nation, can still inflict casualties, both on Iraqi civilians as well as U.S. military and coalition forces," he said. "Would we like to reduce casualties to nothing? Of course we would. Are there still going to be casualties in the days ahead? Most unfortunately, there will be."

There were no further U.S. casualties reported in Iraq on Monday, but even with the reduced violence, U.S. military deaths in Iraq are averaging about one per day.

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