U.S. troops in Iraq have suffered a rash of fatal vehicle accidents and other non-combat deaths in recent weeks, even as the number killed in insurgent attacks has declined.
Although details of recent accidents have not been made public, some officials believe the jump in their number can be explained in part by turbulence from the troop rotation that is now approaching its peak, with tens of thousands of troops arriving and like numbers going home.
"The sheer volume of soldiers on the ground and high volume of vehicular traffic may reflect a higher rate of individual accidents or non-battle injuries," said Maj. Richard Goldenberg, spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard, which is commanding a mixed Guard/regular Army task force responsible for an area of north-central Iraq.
There currently are about 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to the U.S. military command in Baghdad. That is the highest number of the entire war, including the initial invasion.
The number of troops is expected to drop to about 135,000 over the next month or two as units that complete their one-year tours of duty in Iraq pack up and head for home. Some were held beyond their planned departure dates in order to provide extra security in advance of the Jan. 30 election.
In the first 16 days of February, there were 14 non-combat deaths, compared with 16 combat deaths.
January had the highest number of accidental or other non-hostile deaths for any month of the war, with 51. That included 30 Marines and one Navy corpsman killed in a single helicopter crash, on Jan. 26. Even setting that accident aside, the Army alone had 18 non-combat deaths in January — the most for any month of the war except August 2003, when it reported 22.
January also had 47 combat deaths, down from 57 in December and 125 in November.
Although U.S. deaths in insurgent attacks have declined the past two months, the number of attacks has not. The U.S. military command in Baghdad said Thursday that in the two weeks since the Jan. 30 election there have been 1,012 insurgent attacks, compared with 1,876 from Jan. 1-29.
The spike in non-hostile deaths in January and February coincides with the troop rotation, which began in small stages last fall but reached its peak over the past two months. The last time there was a notable increase in non-combat deaths was during the previous troop rotation — in February and March of 2004, according to Pentagon casualty statistics.
Fatal accidents and other non-hostile deaths are almost inevitable in a war zone, and during 2004 the number reported each month in Iraq stayed within a fairly narrow range — from a low of five in June to a high of 19 in March. The average during the year was 11 per month.
The latest surge in accidental deaths began in mid-January and has continued well into February.
This week alone, vehicle accidents killed at least eight soldiers and Marines. That includes three crashes on Wednesday that killed two Marines, two soldiers and one Iraqi civilian and wounded two soldiers and two Iraqis. In addition, one soldier died Wednesday on an unidentified U.S. base in Iraq from what the Army described only as a "non-combat injury."
The names of those latest U.S. casualties had not been released as of Thursday.
The non-hostile deaths also include a Feb. 13 incident in which three soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division died in Balad, north of Baghdad, when their Humvee military vehicle overturned while on a combat patrol and plunged into a canal. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ray Rangel died trying to rescue the soldiers in the canal. The 3rd Infantry Division arrived in Iraq in January.
For the entire war period, the Pentagon says 1,459 U.S. troops have died; 346 were non-hostile deaths.