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US Military Examines Significance of 2,000 Soldiers Killed in Iraq

The U.S. Defense Department disputes the calculations by news organizations that indicated U.S. military deaths in Iraq reached 2,000 on Tuesday. But the Department acknowledges that the death toll milestone is very close. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin sorts through the numbers, and reports on what some experts are saying about the significance of reaching 2,000 American military deaths in the controversial conflict.

When news organizations calculated that the death toll had reached two thousand on Tuesday, the Defense Department counted seven fewer deaths. No one can explain the discrepancy, and an effort is under way to come up with a figure everyone can agree on.

But the media and the Pentagon, as well as experts and advocates on all sides of the Iraq war issue, agree on one thing: that the exact number is not as important as the fact that a substantial number of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have died fighting in Iraq.

And retired U.S. Army Colonel Paul Hughes, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says there is another important number besides 2,000.

"It's not the number of 2,000, it's the number of one, because we've lost a comrade, a buddy, a friend, somebody who was in our family," said Mr. Hughes.

The tragedy of the deaths is widely accepted across the U.S. political spectrum, but beyond that, there is wide disagreement on what it means to have lost some two 2,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

At the conservative Washington organization called the Heritage Foundation, research fellow Jim Phillips says focusing on American casualties takes attention away from the larger number of Iraqi troops and civilians who have died in the conflict, as well as the heavy impact the fighting has had on the insurgents.

"I think in historical context it's not a huge number," he noted. "I expected at least 2,000 to be killed in the opening weeks of the war, partly because I expected Iraqi chemical weapon attacks. I think Americans have become too used to antiseptic wars, the two wars in the Balkans and the first Gulf war, and perhaps were taken a little bit by surprise by this."

Mr. Phillips says the United States has achieved a lot for what he considers a relatively low casualty rate.

"I think it is worth it," he added. "You have to remember that Saddam Hussein, who killed an estimated 300,000 of his own people, is now out of power. And the threats he posed to the U.S., we no longer have to worry about those threats. And I think Iraq has been transformed from a threat to the United States and its allies to a potential ally in the war against terrorism. And that's a big plus."

While not minimizing the impact of each death, Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman agrees that the sacrifice in Iraq has been worthwhile.

"It's a cause that is worth fighting, it's a noble and historic cause," said Mr. Whitman. "And it's one in which our troops understand the importance of the mission. While these personal sacrifices are tremendous, the consequences of not acting for freedom and for liberty are certainly far greater."

But there is another side to the American view of casualties in Iraq.

"We don't think that the death and destruction to the U.S. service people and to the Iraqi people can be justified in any way," said Leslie Cagan, National Coordinator of a group called United for Peace and Justice. "We mark this date, and this particular number, because it does represent, we believe, an indication of just how wrong the U.S. policy in Iraq is, just how far off course this administration has taken us. And we basically see this as an opportunity to say to the people of this country, to say to the Bush administration and the Congress that these are too many of our young people who have died in this war."

Ms. Cagan's group calls for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, and at the same time, increased economic aid and political support for the country's new government.

A similar view is expressed in a television advertisement put out this week by another anti-war group called MoveOn.Org.

NARRATOR: "...Lance Corporal Alexander Scott Arridando. Sergeant Michael Mitchell. Petty Officer John House. Sergeant Thomas J. Sweet the second. Corporal Travis Brodock Gnau. Specialist Aaron Scott McKinley. Sergeant David W. Johnson. Political Action responsible for the content of this advertisement."

While an announcer reads the names of some of the U.S. troops killed in Iraq, and coffins partly buried in desert sands are shown, words appear on the screen, "They were teenage boys and girls. They were husbands and wives. They were mothers and fathers. Two-thousand U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq. How many more?"

While the anti-war advocates and administration supporters continue to debate the value of the Iraq war, top generals say they hope to be able to begin withdrawing substantial numbers of U.S. troops sometime next year. But they say that will only happen if there is more success against the insurgency and if Iraq's new political process and security forces continue to develop.

President Bush has vowed that U.S. forces will stay until the insurgents are defeated, and he says the American sacrifices in Iraq are worthwhile.

"Our nation has made a clear choice," said Mr. Bush. "We will not rest or tire until the war on terror is won. The defense of freedom is worth our sacrifice."

And Paul Hughes, the retired colonel at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says while it is impossible to predict what the ultimate price of establishing democracy in Iraq will be, he believes the American people need to stick with the effort.

"The real issue is examining how much we're willing to expend on this war," added Mr. Hughes. "Now, having said that, nobody starts a war with the idea that they're only going to expend 'X' number of dollars or so many lives on the war. This was a war that was fought to free a country of a brutal dictator, and it's now a war for the life of that country, to join the democratic world. What's the price that we pay? Whatever it's necessary to pay in order to ensure that the new Iraqi government, the new Iraqi country, remains free."

As of Thursday, the price, in American lives, according to official figures, was 1,994, of whom 437 died from accidents and other causes not directly related to combat. In addition about 2,800 members of Iraq's new security forces, 198 coalition members, and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died since the war began in early 2003. Thousands more in all categories have been wounded, many of them seriously. U.S. officials expect an upsurge of violence for the Iraqi elections in December. After that, they hope, the situation will begin to stabilize.