Spike in U.S. Deaths in Iraq Raises Worries

by TIM ARANGO
June 26, 2011

BAGHDAD — Two American soldiers were killed Sunday in Iraq, the military command said, making June the worst month in combat-related fatalities for United States forces in Iraq in more than two years. The casualties also reflected the dangers ahead as the United States prepares to withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

The June total of so-called hostile-related deaths of American soldiers is now 11, the most since May 2009, when 12 were killed, according to icasualties.org, an online database that tracks the deaths of foreign forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In a statement issued Sunday night, the American military said the two soldiers were killed “conducting operations” in the north. It did not elaborate, but that terminology is usually meant to indicate the deaths were caused by enemy attack. In the deadliest single-day death toll since 2009, five soldiers were killed June 5 when a rocket struck Victory Base Complex, the military’s base near the Baghdad airport. A sixth later died of his wounds.

Many of the remaining American military bases in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south, have faced an increasing number of rocket and mortar attacks. Officially, the United States is now in an advisory role to the Iraqi military — last year President Obama declared the official end of combat operations — which means United States forces are restricted from acting unilaterally. This has increased frustrations among the American military command, which believes the Iraqi government is reluctant to attack Shiite militias, many backed by Iran and some linked to political parties here, that are carrying out the attacks against Americans.

For example, American officials have said they believe that Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who disbanded his Mahdi Army in 2008 and has taken on a prominent political role, is still linked to some armed groups that attack Americans. Even more troubling for the Americans — and Iraqi Sunnis, for that matter — are Mr. Sadr’s frequent statements that he will reactivate the Mahdi Army if the American military does not withdraw by the end of this year. An agreement that binds the United States and Iraq requires that all American forces leave by year’s end, but the Iraqi political leadership is considering asking for American troops to stay to continue training the Iraqi forces.

Mr. Sadr’s statements about returning to violence if the Americans prolong their stay has created a political dilemma for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who relied on the support of Mr. Sadr’s followers in Parliament to secure a second term.

Mr. Sadr’s talk escalated this weekend when he appeared to endorse the idea of suicide bomb attacks against American troops. On a Web site, he replied to a letter in which followers vowed to conduct suicide attacks by saying, “Thank you my dear friends, God bless you.” Such tactics have been used by Sunni insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, but not by militant Shiite groups, which use rocket and mortar attacks and improvised explosive devices.

At least one official in the Sadrist movement, Hatem Baidhani, denied that Mr. Sadr had approved suicide attacks. “There are some clerics who live outside Iraq that have given the green light to target the occupier military forces with suicide operations, but the Sadrists refuse this idea,” he said.

For years Mr. Sadr has been a nemesis to the American military, which fought two major battles against his Mahdi Army. In an e-mailed statement Sunday, an American military spokesman in Baghdad said that Mr. Sadr’s “statement speaks sufficiently for itself about his attitude toward the use of violence as an alternative to the democratic processes. It’s the same attitude that has caused so much violence for the Iraqi people in the past.”

In Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad and a stronghold of support for Mr. Sadr, men could be found on Sunday who said they were ready to become suicide bombers. “I will give myself as a gift to my country and to Moktada, and I will become a suicide bomber against the occupiers,” said Rafid al-Rubai, 32. “I will be a bomb that our leader Moktada can throw wherever he wants.”

Yasir Ghazi and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.