(CNSNews.com) – Five months before the last U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq, a U.S. government watchdog said Saturday the country is more dangerous now that it was a year ago, and suggested that the U.S. military has been underplaying the violence.
In a report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen Jr., highlighted the fact that June was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Iraq in two years. Fifteen soldiers were killed, 14 of them in combat. In recent briefings, the U.S. military has attributed 12 of the 14 deaths to attacks by Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, and the remaining two to Sunni insurgents.
“Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” Bowen wrote in the introduction to his 172-page quarterly report. “It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago.”
According to a CNSNews.com database of U.S. military casualties in Iraq since the war began in 2003, June was in fact the deadliest month for U.S. personnel in three years, not two, if combat-related fatalities alone are considered. Since August 2008, when 14 combat deaths were recorded, no single month has seen as many as 14 American soldiers killed in hostile circumstances.
July saw the numbers drop considerably, with five deaths reported by the Pentagon – four of them in combat:
On July 7, Spc. Nicholas Newby, 20, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Spc. Nathan Beyers, 24, of Littleton, Colo., were killed in an explosion in Baghdad involving an especially deadly type of IED known as an “explosively formed penetrator” (EFP). U.S. military officials say they come from Iran.
On July 10, Sgt. Steve Talamantez, 34, of Laredo, Texas was killed as a result of indirect mortar fire in Maysan province, south-east of Baghdad.
On July 15, Spc. Daniel Elliott, 21, of Youngsville, N.C., was killed in an IED attack in Basra in southern Iraq.
On July 17, Sgt. Mark Cofield, 25, of Colorado Springs, Colo., died in Baghdad from injuries sustained in a non-combat related incident.
The July combat death toll is lower than those recorded in January and April this year – five fatalities each – but otherwise stands in tied fourth highest place of any month over the past two years (see graph).
In his report, Bowen noted that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias “have grown more active this year.”
“Al-Qaeda also remains a lethal threat, with U.S. intelligence officials estimating that up to 1,000 al-Qaeda-affiliated militants are now in Iraq.”
Bowen cited other security problems, including frequent rocket attacks in Baghdad’s international Green Zone “using more destructive and more accurate Iranian-produced munitions,” suicide bombings targeting Iraqi forces and assassinations of Iraqi government officials.
He suggested that the U.S. military has been playing down the problem.
“Notwithstanding the very real fragility of Iraq’s devolving security environment … the U.S. Forces Iraq (USF-I) continues to contrast the current security status in Iraq to that of mid-2007 – when the country was embroiled in a state of near-civil war – noting in late May, for example, that the security trends ‘are very, very positive,’ ” he wrote.
‘Unmatched support for terrorism’
Some 46,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from a peak of about 170,000 at the height of the 2007 troop “surge.” December 31 is the deadline for their departure, in line with a treaty signed by the Bush administration in late 2008. But the two governments are discussing the possibility of retaining some personnel there in a training capacity beyond that date.
The Obama administration has become more publicly outspoken in recent weeks about the extent to which Iran is involved in anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq.
“We are very concerned about Iran and the weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a visit to Iraq last month. “In June we lost a hell of a lot of Americans as a result of those attacks. And we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen.”
Similar warnings also came last month from U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who accused Iran of “killing our people,” citing forensic evidence linking Iran to weapons.
Iran’s support for Shi’ite militias in Iraq has been widely discussed, but on Thursday the U.S. Treasury Department accused Iran of collaborating with a Sunni al-Qaeda network that sends money and recruits through Iranian territory in support of its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today,” the department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen said in a statement. “By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism.”
The Treasury designated six members of the al-Qaeda network under a post-9/11 executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists. One of the six, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is identified as leader of the network and has been “al-Qaeda’s representative in Iran” since 2005, the department said.
“Khalil has collected funding from various donors and fundraisers throughout the Gulf and is responsible for moving significant amounts of money via Iran for onward passage to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq,” it said. “He has also facilitated the travel of extremist recruits for al-Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran.”