(CNSNews.com) – Six months ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Iraq, June brought a somber reminder of an earlier time as well as concerns that the months leading up to the exit could produce a fresh increase in violence as insurgents and their supporters maneuver for influence.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey on Saturday accused Iranian security agencies of supplying lethal weapons to Shi’ite groups in Iraq but said the U.S. would not be intimidated by those behind the attacks.
Fifteen U.S. troops died in Iraq in June, more than in any single month since June 2009, according to a CNSNews.com database of U.S. military casualties in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
Moreover, 14 of those 15 deaths were combat-related. If that category of fatalities alone is taken into account, then June marked the deadliest month for U.S. personnel since August 2008, a time when the steadily dropping monthly death toll was heading towards single digits, in the aftermath of the troop “surge” that went into full effect a year earlier (see table).
There are currently some 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from a peak of around 170,000 at the height of the surge. December 31 is the deadline for their departure, although new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his confirmation process told a Senate committee he fully expects Baghdad to ask for some troop presence to remain beyond that date.
No formal request has yet been made public, however, and U.S. Forces-Iraq deputy Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick during a press roundtable on June 22 stated clearly that “our last order is to go to zero.”
Still, Jeffrey on Saturday reaffirmed that the U.S. would be willing, if asked, to keep some troops in Iraq into 2012.
Helmick said that attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians have dropped fourfold since 2007, when they averaged some 400 each week. But he also acknowledged concern about an uptick in attacks in the south in recent months.
The U.S. combat-related deaths in June took place in four areas – Baghdad; Wasit, a province located southeast of the capital; Najaf, a key Shi’ite province south of Baghdad; and Diyala, the province located to the northeast of Baghdad and stretching to the Iranian border.
Of the 14 fatalities, nine were attributed to rocket attacks and five to improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The worst single attack occurred on June 6 – a rocket attack on a base near Baghdad airport that killed five soldiers assigned to the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.
They were Spc. Emilio J. Campo Jr., of Madelia, Minn.; Spc. Michael B. Cook Jr., of Middletown, Ohio; Spc. Christopher B. Fishbeck of Victorville, Calif.; Spc. Robert P. Hartwick of Rockbridge, Ohio; and Pfc. Michael C. Olivieri of Chicago, Ill.
A sixth soldier injured in that attack, Spc. Marcos Cintron of Orlando, Fla., died at a medical facility in Boston on June 16.
The next deadliest attack took place on June 29, when three soldiers assigned to 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood were killed in a rocket assault on a base at Badrah in Wasit province, near the Iranian border. The Pentagon named them as Capt. Matthew Nielson of Jefferson, Iowa; Capt. David Van Camp of Wheeling, W.Va.; and Spc. Robert Tenney Jr. of Warner Robins, Ga.
On June 8, Pfc. Matthew England of Gainesville, Mo., died when enemy forces attacked his unit with an IED in Najaf province.
On June 13, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Bellard of El Paso, Texas and Sgt. Glenn Sewell of Live Oak, Texas were killed in an IED attack in Wasit province.
On June 26, Staff Sgt. Russell Proctor of Oroville, Calif. and Pfc. Dylan Johnson of Tulsa, Okla. died of wounds sustained in an IED attack in Diyala province.
Wasit no longer quiet
The violence in Wasit has been an unusual development. According to the CNSNews.com database, Wasit was among the quietest provinces in Iraq over the full period of hostilities that began with the March 2003 invasion.
The very first combat death reported in the province, which stretches southeast of Baghdad to the border with Iran, was in June 2006, when Sgt. Daniel Crabtree of Canton, Ohio was killed in an IED attack on his Humvee.
Wasit was handed over to full Iraqi control in October 2008, and no further U.S. combat deaths were reported there until November 2009, when Staff Sgt. Briand Williams of Sparks, Ga. died from injuries sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with small arms fire.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed in Wasit during 2010 – Maj. Ronald Daniel Culver Jr. of Shreveport, La. died in an IED attack in May, and Pvt. David Finch of Bath Springs, Tenn. was killed by sniper fire in December.
In the first six months of this year, however, seven American soldiers have been killed in hostile circumstances in Wasit – compared to four over the entire 2003-2010 period.
Apart from the five deaths in two attacks in June, the remaining two combat fatalities were 1st Lt. Omar Vasquez of Hamilton, N.J. and Pvt. Antonio Stiggins of Rio Rancho, N.M., who died of wounds sustained in an IED attack on their unit on April 22.
Wasit was also the location of the one non-combat U.S. death reported during June. The Pentagon said the circumstances surrounding the June 26 death of Sgt. Matthew Gallagher of North Falmouth, Mass. were under investigation.
The main threat facing U.S. forces as the withdrawal draws nearer appears to be coming from Iranian-linked Shi’ite groups.
One such organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the June 6 rocket attack in Baghdad that killed six.
An unnamed U.S. military official quoted by the Associated Press said the type of weapon used in the June 29 rocket attack near the border with Iran also bore the hallmarks of a Shi’ite militia closely linked to Iran.
The U.S. State Department designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in mid-2009, accusing it of posing a threat to stability in Iraq and of responsibility for numerous attacks against U.S., Iraqi and other targets since 2007.
Other Iranian-linked Shi’ite extremist groups active in Iraq are Asaib al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) and the Promise Day Brigade.
Jeffrey told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Saturday that Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib al-Haq “are basically nothing more than thuggish clones of their IRGC-Qods Force masters,” referring to the notorious Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ unit responsible for operations abroad.
Jeffrey accused the IRGC-Qods Force of providing “significantly more lethal weapons systems” to groups inside Iraq.
Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted by the official IRNA news agency Saturday as dismissing as “baseless” U.S. claims about Iranian involvement in fatal attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.
Vahidi is himself a former head of the IRGC-Qods Force and in that capacity is wanted by the Argentinian authorities on suspicion of involvement in the 1994 suicide truck bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.