U.S. death toll in Iraq reaches 500 | NevadaAppeal.com
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U.S. death toll in Iraq reaches 500

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

TAJI, Iraq – The death toll for U.S. troops in Iraq reached 500 on Saturday when a powerful bomb exploded beneath a convoy in this rural area west of Baghdad, killing three soldiers and injuring two others. Almost 3,000 additional American soldiers have been injured since the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in late March.

The early-morning attack, which also killed two Iraqi civil defense corpsmen working alongside U.S. troops, took place on a country road lined with date palms and fields of wheat and barley. It came one day after the U.S. commander here, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, spoke confidently of a steep decline in attacks in recent weeks and called on the stubborn insurgents operating in the largely Sunni Muslim-dominated region to capitulate.

The strike Saturday produced the largest U.S. death toll in a single incident since a Black Hawk Medevac helicopter crashed near the town of Fallujah on Jan. 8 – apparently due to enemy rocket fire-killing all nine soldiers aboard.

The milestone 500th death occurred as U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., are scrambling to develop a plan to mollify leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority seeking direct popular elections as part of a planned transfer of power to Iraqis on June 30. White House officials are keen to avoid the instability likely to result from a broad Shiite rejection of the U.S.-crafted political solution, which does not envision direct elections until next year.

As Saturday’s attack demonstrated, the insurgency emanating from areas dominated by Sunni Muslims, who had favored status during Saddam Hussein’s rule and now feel marginalized, still appears far from spent. Also on Saturday, the military said a U.S. soldier died from a nonhostile gunshot wound south of Baghdad, the capital. Further details were not available about the incident, which occurred Friday.

Saturday’s attack brought the death toll in Iraq to exactly 500 since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20, according to Pentagon numbers and a daily compilation of casualties by the Associated Press. Of those, 346 have died as a result of hostile action and 154 from nonhostile causes, such as accidents and illness.

Most of the deaths, 362, have occurred since President Bush declared the end to major combat in Iraq on May 1. In contrast, the war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of 100 U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon says.

Saturday’s bomb was an especially powerful device, officials said, blowing a hole about 10 -feet long and five feet across in the asphalt road. The bomb, which went off at 7:45 a.m., appeared to have been placed in a metal pipe that drew water from a tributary of the Tigris to an adjoining irrigation canal.

The blast destroyed a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a tank-like vehicle that moves on a track and is widely employed by the U.S. military here. Bradleys have proved vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades with armor-piercing tips and roadside bombs that strike the relatively vulnerable undersides.

Four of the dead – two U.S. soldiers and the two Iraqi civil defense corps members – were in the vehicle’s rear compartment, where ground troops sit while being transported. Also killed was the vehicle’s driver. None of the victims was identified pending notification of relatives.

The Bradley commander and the gunner were in the vehicle’s turret at the time of the blast and survived with injuries, said Capt. Bryan Miller, a spokesman at Forward Operating Base Gunnerthe Fourth Infantry Division installation that patrols the Taji area, a rural suburb to the northwest of Baghdad that has been the site of many attacks against U.S. forces.

Both injured soldiers were evacuated to an Army casualty hospital in Baghdad and were reported in stable condition.

A concealed wire appeared to have been used to detonate the blast. A line of dislodged dirt led from the bomb site into an adjoining field of river reeds, marking the spot where U.S. Army investigators apparently traced the wire to the detonator that set it off. Other roadside bombs have been set off by remote control.

After the cameras left, several farmers who milled about the crater said the attack would do them no good. Several wondered who would repair their irrigation pipe, a section of which was blown to pieces.

“When this happens, the Americans come to all of our houses and arrest many men,” said Firaz Abid, 23, as he stood alongside the rim of the bomb crater, where pieces of the tank were scattered alongside an empty U.S. cartridge magazine and blood-streaked cotton bandages. “I wish this fighting would stop. It doesn’t help us.”.”

Over the next six months, U.S. military officials plan a troop rotation that is to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq from 130,000 to 105,000.

A senior U.S. military official insisted Saturday that cuts in overall troops will not hinder the coalition’s ability to maintain security or battle insurgents. “That will be a reduction in numbers, but we don’t see it as a reduction in capability,” the official said.

The United States also is sending home several units that specialize in high-intensity fighting and tank-on-tank warfare, seeking to replace them with more mobile forces better-equipped for guerrilla-style conflict.

The military is also reducing the number of tanks and helicopters in Iraq, replacing them with 323 new Stryker combat vehicles – armored vehicles on wheels rather than tracks that are considered better adapted for the current fight in Iraq.

As the U.S. numbers diminish, U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces are due to take on increased responsibilities for patrolling the streets, countryside and borders. U.S. authorities, however, fully expect to maintain a major military presence in Iraq following the anticipated changeover of government to Iraqi control on June 30.

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Baghdad contributed to this report.