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Originally published November 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 5, 2007 at 2:18 PM

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U.S. on track to have deadliest year of war

With just under two months left in the year, 2007 is on course to be the deadliest year on record for American forces in Iraq, despite a...

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD — With just under two months left in the year, 2007 is on course to be the deadliest year on record for American forces in Iraq, despite a recent sharp drop in U.S. deaths.

At least 847 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq so far this year — the second-highest annual toll since the war began in March 2003, according to Associated Press figures.

In 2004, the bloodiest year of the war for the U.S. so far, 850 U.S. troops died. Most were killed in large, conventional battles like the campaign to cleanse Fallujah of Sunni militants in November, and in U.S. clashes with Shiite militia in the sect's holy city of Najaf in August.

But the U.S. military in Iraq has raised its exposure this year, reaching a high of 165,000 troops. Moreover, the decision to send soldiers out of large bases and into Iraqi communities means more troops have seen more "contact with enemy forces," said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

"It's due to the troop surge, which allowed us to go into areas that were previously safe havens for insurgents," Danielson said. "Having more soldiers, and having them out in the communities, certainly contributes to our casualties."

Moving in

Last spring, U.S. platoons took up positions — often in abandoned houses or in muddy, half-collapsed police stations — in the heart of neighborhoods across Baghdad and nearby communities. The move was part of President Bush's new strategy to drive al-Qaida from the capital.

The idea was to fight the "three-block war" — in the words of the Pentagon counterinsurgency manual written in part by America's commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus — by embedding U.S. forces inside Iraqi communities to win the trust and aid of residents.

It was the first time many residents had seen U.S. troops up close, rather than whizzing by in armored convoys en route to huge bases.

And it was the first time many U.S. troops went to bed each night outside those fortresses, to the sounds of Iraqi life: gunfire, the roar of helicopters overhead and an occasional explosion.

The move has worked, U.S. officials say. Increasingly, the sounds of Baghdad include children playing in the streets.

"It's allowed Iraqi civilians to get more comfortable with U.S. forces, increasing the number of tips we get from Iraqi citizens," Danielson said.

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"That leads us to insurgent leaders and cells, and cleaning those up has led to a decline in violence over the past couple months," he said.

Stationing troops in communities, where they have reduced the level of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, also appears to have helped win the trust of the leaders of Shiite and Sunni communities. And that has helped the U.S. persuade those leaders to join the fight against radical groups, especially al-Qaida in Iraq.

Pressure on al-Sadr

The troop increase also put pressure on anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called a formal cease-fire in August. That, it appears, has slashed the number of mutilated bodies discovered on the banks of the Tigris River and other dump sites each day, the apparent victims of sectarian murders.

At least 1,023 Iraqi civilians died in September, but in October, that figure was just 875.

On average, 56 Iraqis — civilians and security forces — have died each day in 2007. Twenty were killed or found dead Sunday, including an aide to the finance minister, who was ambushed in Baghdad.

Twelve of the deaths were in volatile Diyala province, including an Iraqi soldier, a policeman and an 8-year-old child, all killed separately.

But the same strategy that U.S. military officials say has reduced violence so sharply is what made 2007 so deadly for American forces.

Suicide bombers

Small patrol bases make attractive targets for insurgents. In April, nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 20 wounded when two suicide truck bombers rammed into their building in the heart of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad.

It was the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in a year and a half.

Troops ventured out on Iraq's roads more frequently in 2007, and insurgents responded by building larger, more powerful and more difficult to detect roadside bombs.

On a single day in June, the military announced the deaths of 14 troops, most killed by such explosions.

Diyala's provincial capital, Baqouba, was planted with so many hidden explosive devices that some streets were declared off-limits to U.S. military vehicles.

Today, many places where U.S. troops did not dare venture last year are relatively quiet. Anbar Province, once the heart of the insurgency, is now one of the most peaceful areas.

Approaching the year's end — more than four months after U.S. forces completed the 30,000-strong force buildup — the monthly death toll among Americans and Iraqis has fallen dramatically.

The number of U.S. troop deaths dropped from 65 to 36 in the same period, according to statistics kept by The AP. That's the lowest monthly toll of American deaths this year.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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