US deaths in Iraq a bid to torpedo troop stay: experts

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An Iraqi policeman stands at a checkpoint in Baghdad
© AFP Ahmad al-Rubaye

 

An Iraqi policeman stands at a checkpoint in Baghdad
© AFP Ahmad al-Rubaye

BAGHDAD (AFP) – An attack that killed five American soldiers Monday was the deadliest in an increasing spate of bids by insurgent groups to ensure Iraq and the US do not agree an extended US troop presence, experts say.

The violence, which resulted in the bloodiest day for American forces in Iraq in more than two years, comes as attacks against Washington’s troops and unrest in general are on the rise, according to the US army and a private security firm.

And while the 45,000-odd American soldiers now stationed in Iraq are required to withdraw by the end of the year, US officials have been pressing their counterparts in Baghdad to decide soon whether or not to keep a contingent of soldiers beyond 2011.

“The purpose of these attacks is to pressure the US administration, through the American public, so that they do not tolerate the loss of more American soldiers,” said Hamid Fadhel, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.

“This matter will generate twofold pressure on the US administration to pull out on time — it wants to respond to the American public and to fulfil the promises they have made to Iraq.”

The five US personnel were killed on Monday in “central Iraq”, a brief US army statement said. Captain Dan Churchill, a US military spokesman, declined to give details on how or where the soldiers died.

An Iraqi interior ministry official said that at least three rockets struck a base at dawn in east Baghdad where US soldiers were present, but could not specify if it was an American or Iraqi installation.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

“There are many different groups behind attacks against Americans at this stage, and we cannot distinguish which is the main group,” a senior Iraqi counter-terror officer told AFP, on condition of anonymity.

“But the aims of this attack is certainly to accelerate the US withdrawal.”

Monday’s deaths were the most of American service personnel in a single day since May 11, 2009, and brought to 4,459 the number of US soldiers who have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003, according to an AFP tally based on data compiled by independent website www.icasualties.org.

Insurgent groups have been stepping up targeting of US forces over the past two months, particularly in Baghdad and south Iraq, Major Angela Funaro, a US military spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to questions from AFP.

She declined to give specific figures, but noted that the rate of attacks was around 10 times lower than its peak in early 2007.

John Drake, a Britain-based security analyst for private security firm AKE Group, added that violence nationwide had been on the rise since the beginning of the year, from four to five attacks per day in January to more than 10 per day last month.

According to Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, insurgents could be increasing the pace of attacks to make it seem as though they were forcing US troops out.

“If the Americans do leave, and you attack them, then it kind of makes it look like you’re kicking them out,” he said.

“What the insurgents are trying to do is to play to the feeling that the Americans said they would leave but weren’t really going to leave.”

The remaining 45,000 US forces are primarily charged with training and equipping their Iraqi counterparts, although they still take part in joint counter-terror operations.

Drake noted that there were key benefits to an extended American troop presence, including “training, support, intelligence and joint operations.”

Washington declared an official end to combat operations last summer, and is required to pull all of its forces out by the end of the year, according to a bilateral security pact.

But several top US officials, including Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, visited Iraq in April to press local leaders to decide soon whether or not US troops were needed beyond 2011.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for a national dialogue over whether American troops should stay, but anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has threatened to reactivate his Mahdi Army militia if any extension is agreed.

“This is a reminder that things can get very very hairy if the insurgents wanted it to,” said Saffar.

“There isn’t much appetite inside Washington for sustained military deaths in Iraq,” he added. “Withdrawal from Iraq was (US President Barack) Obama’s big pre-election promise. It’s going to be difficult for him to argue for a sustained military presence if the body count increases.”