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Marines bore disproportionate death toll in November

By Otto Kreisher

Copley News Service


WASHINGTON - Leading the fight to destroy the insurgent stronghold in Fallujah cost the Marines at least 83 deaths and hundreds of wounded in November, a disproportionate share of total U.S. casualties in Iraq last month.

One Navy corpsman serving with the Marines in Iraq also died.

The death toll, confirmed by Marine and Navy spokeswomen Wednesday, represents by far the bloodiest period for the Marine force since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. It eclipses the previous monthly high of 52 Marines killed last April, which also saw heavy fighting in Fallujah, and the 58 who died during the 42 days of "major combat" that took down Saddam Hussein's regime last year.

The Marines now have suffered a total of 368 deaths in Iraq, 29 percent of the U.S. total of 1,255 reported killed in combat or accidents as of Wednesday. The Navy has lost a total of 19 killed in Iraq, about evenly split between medically trained corpsmen and Seabee construction specialists.

Gunnery Sgt. Kristine Scarber, a Marine spokeswoman, did not have the number of Marines wounded in November but said 3,129 have been wounded since the start of Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003. If that ratio of killed to wounded held up, the Marines would have had more than 700 wounded in November.

The Navy has suffered 157 wounded in Iraq, according to a Pentagon Web site a Navy spokeswoman said was up to date.

The record number of Marine fatalities in November accounted for 60 percent of last month's total U.S. death toll of at least 136 - also a new high - even though the Marines make up only 18 percent of the U.S. forces in Iraq.

"It really proved that our Marines were taking the fight to the enemy. As a result, we would suffer more casualties," Gunnery Sgt. Scarber said.

Three defense analysts agreed with that assessment and said the disproportionate death toll was a result of the Marines bearing the major burden of the intensive and deadly urban fighting in Fallujah, rather than any failure of their tactics, leadership or equipment.

"We are carrying the offensive to the enemy. In that case, especially when fighting in a city, you can expect higher casualties," said Robert Work, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"I think it's mostly the fact that the MEF was the most heavily involved in this operation" (in Fallujah), analyst Jay Farrar said, referring to the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which commands the Marines in Iraq.

Although the Marines account for about 25,000 of the total U.S. force of 138,000 in Iraq, they contributed about two-thirds of the troops that fought their way through the narrow streets of Fallujah last month.

"As a norm, the Marines tend to be a bit more aggressive than the Army, but you have to keep in perspective the nature of the operation in Fallujah," added Farrar, an official and analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Work and Farrar both are retired Marine officers. But Daniel Goure, a national security analyst at the Lexington Institution, also said the Marines' high casualty count "was a reflection of the kind of fighting they had to do." And it was "par for the course for serious urban combat, particularly when you don't want to level the town," Goure said.

"To some extent, the high casualty count was due to the Marines' desire to minimize civilian casualties" and damage to the buildings, he said.

"Despite the (media) images of bombing and devastation, this was a restrained operation, and one of the consequences of restrained tactics is higher casualties," Goure added.

In major urban combat in previous wars, infantry assaults normally were accompanied by massive aerial bombing or intense artillery barrages. But the Marine and Army forces that assaulted Fallujah used limited numbers of precision bombs, closely controlled artillery and direct fire from tanks and armored vehicles to reduce the damage to the city.

Farrar conceded that the casualty statistics for Fallujah "are pretty ugly. But they don't seem to be having a negative impact on the force. The troops still seem committed to the mission."

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