Two American troops were killed in northern Iraq yesterday while “conducting operations.” The New York Times reports that the military “did not elaborate, but that terminology is usually meant to indicate the deaths were caused by enemy attack.” And earlier this month, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group attacked and killed six U.S. soldiers. Now, total U.S. combat deaths in Iraq in June has reached 11, the most since May 2009. But despite the fact that Americans are still dying combat related deaths in Iraq, President Obama announced last year that the U.S ended hostilities in Iraq and said as recently as last week in his speech that America’s combat mission there was already over:
Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We have ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country.
This simply isn’t the reality that troops on the ground are facing. Putting the number of recent U.S. combat deaths in Iraq aside, militants there are still attacking U.S. forces there with continuing regularity even though the Americans are relegated to their bases and cannot conduct combat operations without permission from the Iraqis. U.S. forces are facing “an increasingly dangerous environment in southern Iraq,” the AP reported last month, “where Shiite militias trying to claim they are driving out the U.S. occupiers have stepped up attacks against bases and troops.”
Indeed, the Irainian-backed group Kataib Hezbollah, which claimed responsibility for the attack earlier this month, said its attacks on U.S. troops were aimed at stopping the “occupation interference” in Iraq’s affairs and forcing the U.S. to abide by the withdrawal deadline. And while it’s unclear how much Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters are participating in attacks on U.S. forces, he has pledged to unleash his Mehdi Army if the Americans stay past 2011.
One analyst has also said that he has seen an increase in the use of armor piercing IEDs called explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs. “The increase in attacks shows that Iranian-backed cells enjoy greater freedom of movement than they have in the past,” said Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
At the same time, top U.S. officials like incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said that if the Iraqis ask, the U.S. will keep an unspecified number of troops (some have estimated around 10,000) past the Dec. 31 total withdrawal deadline. Some have cited increased sectarian tentions as one reason for the Americans to stay, but as journalist Mark Kukis noted recently, a prolonged American presence there will only exacerbate the problem:
Secular, nonsectarian Sunni militants, men who consider themselves Iraqi nationalists for resisting a foreign military presence, drift into the company of Iraq’s al-Qaeda contingent when seeking help to lash out at U.S. forces. This drift in effect bolsters al-Qaeda radicals, allowing them to pursue more easily sectarian violence against Shi’ites. Increased sectarian aggression on the part of al-Qaeda produces a violent response from Shi’ite militias such as the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government, whose security forces are quick to indulge in brutal crackdowns against Sunni communities where militants are thought to be active.
Whether sectarian tensions in Iraq will rise to level of the civil war days of 2006 and 2007 if the Americans leave is uncertain but unlikely. However, there is one certainty if U.S. troops withdraw on time: After Dec. 31, 2011, Iraqi militants will no longer launch attacks on and kill American soldiers.