The Deadliest Month in Two Years

“The pace of U.S. deaths could make October the deadliest month is two years,” reported the AP on October 23rd.  The headline was duly repeated by countless broadcasters and commentators,

But this proved untrue.  The 107 troop death toll of January 2005 was higher. By Monday, October 30, a corrected assessment clogged the airwaves:  October 2006 was “the fourth deadliest month for U.S. troops since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.” (Reuters, Oct 30).

This is another way of saying that October was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq in 2006, but not as deadly as the worst months in previous years.

How deadly was October 2006, and why?

Trends vs Factoids

U.S. deaths in October, 100 as of the 30th, were slightly up from Oct. 2005, when 96 U.S. soldiers died.  2006 has seen a month with the “fourth highest” number of U.S. troop fatalities since January, 2004; it has also seen a month with the “second lowest” number of U.S. troop fatalities (31 in March, 2006).

One can obviously prove any “trend” if one is allowed to pick-and-choose time intervals during a conflict.  One might prove that the week of the battle of Gettysburg witnessed a 10,000% increase in fatalities during the Civil War, or that the week after Antietam signaled a 10,000% reduction in casualties. A trend comparison must encompass some substantial period of time to mean anything.  

Year-to-year, U.S. troop casualties in Iraq continue to decline. In 2006, U.S. troop fatalities are running 9.5% below the 2005 mortality rate.  This FACT was reported in not one of the hundreds of articles and broadcasts that described October as the “bloodiest month”, or the “second bloodiest month”, or the “fourth bloodiest month.”  The “bloodiest month” is obviously big news for the mainstream media, even if it’s really, uh, not quite so.  But “the least bloody year in the past three” is apparently not news at all – not at the NYT, WaPost, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN et al. 

But year-to-year, it’s the truth:  U.S. troops fatalities are decreasing.

Of course, there is the matter of Iraqi civilian deaths.  In August of 2006, sectarian violence spiked the death toll from 1280 (in July) to 2,966.  September was the worst:  3,539 died.

In October, that rate was cut by more than half, to a still-grisly 1434. 

So here’s your honest headline:  “In October 2006, U.S. troop deaths rose, while Iraqi
civilian deaths declined.”

Whut’s happenin’?

There is a direct causal relation between the October spike in American casualties, and the massive decrease in Iraqi civilian casualties.  But you’d never know it if you get your war news from the American media.

For three years, Sunni radicals – Ba’athist recidivists and al-Qaeda terrorists – have been playing a game dangerous to the Shi’ite/Kurdish democracy, and fatal to their own community.  Under Saddam, the Ba’ath Party, originally an ethnically diverse pan-Arab nationalist movement, was purged of its Shi’ite leadership.  Saddam trusted, and promoted, Sunni tribes, particularly those from Takrit, to run the country.  Laced liberally with nepotism, the ruling group was small, closed, and spectacularly rewarded.

The rest of the population was checked by a secret police – the Mukhabaret – modeled after the Cheka of the Stalinist era.  It had no parallel in the Arab world in terms of manpower and brutality.  And that’s saying a lot.

When the government fell, the ruling group lost power and privilege.  But the most ruthless elements of that ruling group also faced the furious retribution of the Shi’ite/Kurdish majority they had brutally suppressed.

The initial stages of the insurgency were directed against us:  the hated coalition that had unseated Saddam.  That failed.  The insurgents were unable to hold territory, or establish any long-term base.

The insurgents then attempted to stop the creation of a new government.  That failed.  The Iraqi people overwhelmingly participated in elections on both the provincial and national level, creating a multi-party state, and a multi-media press.

The insurgents then attempted to block the formation of a national army and police.  That too failed.  Even faster than they could slaughter recruits, Iraqis volunteered.  Today, the majority of anti-insurgent activity in Iraq is conducted by Iraqi troops, with coalition support.

But finally, in winter of 2006, the insurgents found something that kind-of worked.  They started slaughtering unarmed Shi’ite civilians.  They exploded buses filled with schoolchildren.  They bombed women in market-places.  They planted IEDs in dumpsters, booby-trapped to kill beggars.

In Iraq, Shi’ites outnumber Sunni Arabs 3-to-1.  Killing them all was quite impractical. The insurgents’ object was to cause moderate Shi’ites to lose control.  Today, every time an atrocity occurs in a Shi’ite portion of Baghdad, the neighborhood leaders call al-Sadr headquarters for “protection.”  The militia dispatches a van full of gunmen, who spray bullets into Sunni neighborhoods, or set up fake check point to capture and kill Sunnis.  The “protection” is pure revenge.  And the revenge killings enable the Sunni insurgents to recruit, even as it drives Sunnis from their neighborhoods, from their country, and from their lives.

The government of George W. Bush made a limited tactical decision to attempt to stop this ethnic violence.  The humanitarian rationale is obvious.  The political rationale is not.
Democracy is more likely in Iraq if all major groups are represented.  The elimination of the Sunni neighborhoods from Baghdad governate would remove the element most hostile to the coalition – but also the element best-educated, and most committed to a national vision.

As a result, the U.S. is acting to disarm the Shi’ite militias whose power has grown in the face of Sunni terror.

The political consequences were reflected in the widely misunderstood PIPA poll taken last September. 

  • America’s popularity has declined among Shi’ites, who believe (correctly) that we are interfering with their settling accounts with the Sunnis.
  • America’s popularity has increased among Sunnis, who believe (correctly) that America’s presence is shielding them from Shi’ite counter-violence.

In October, Americans sacrificed their lives to buy time for a political settlement that would advance American political objectives.  And the overall violence in Iraq decreased.


American patience is not unlimited. For three years now, Sunni radicals have sown the wind, and the time may be coming when they will reap the whirlwind.  They have effectively radicalized their own community in the Baghdad governate, but they have risked its physical survival in so doing.  The violence in Baghdad WILL end.  Today, a Shi’ite/Kurdish alliance controls 300,000 Iraq soldiers and police, who will ultimately end it.  The only question is whether that end will be a political solution or an orgy of Sunni blood – a tragic, but logical, denouement to decades of Sunni Baathist barbarity.

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