What a month.
April was the deadliest 30-day stretch since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began over a year ago, concluding almost one year to the day after President Bush stood aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared major combat operations complete beneath a banner proclaiming, "Mission Accomplished."
At least 136 U.S. servicemen and women lost their lives in Iraq last month, according to data from the Pentagon compiled by The Associated Press. More Americans perished in April than during the first three months of the year combined, more than died during the siege of Baghdad a year ago. At least 13 of those killed were teenagers.
As of this writing, at least 754 members of the American armed forces have now lost their lives in Iraq. More than 3,500 have been injured. By the time you read this, the numbers may be higher. One hundred seventeen non-American coalition members have also died.
Accurate casualty figures for Iraqi insurgents and civilians are harder to come by. Deaths in the city of Fallujah alone are believed to be well into the hundreds, perhaps into the thousands. Until late last week, the city had been cordoned off by U.S. forces. Reports from inside were sketchy at best.
For the over-50 set, April's events may have brought back memories of the Vietnam conflict's darkest days. For many of the rest of us, the violence was a simply a jarring introduction to the brutalities of war.
Perhaps fittingly, the month was bookended by two shocking sets of images.
On March 31, insurgents attacked four American contract workers in a convoy in the city of Fallujah. An ecstatic mob burned the vehicles and the men, then dragged their charred corpses through the streets. Photos of human remains swinging from telephone poles were so grizzly some U.S. newspapers declined to print them. The incident sparked weeks of street-to-street combat between insurgents and U.S. forces seeking to control the city.
At the end of April, CBS News broadcast photos depicting U.S. military police subjecting Iraqi prisoners of war to humiliating and dehumanizing acts. The grotesque images apparently were from inside Abu Ghraib prison, a facility where Saddam Hussein's regime once tortured and killed thousands. In one photo, a cloaked Iraqi soldier stands on top of several crates holding wires in both hands. The man was told that if he stepped off the crate he would be electrocuted, according to the CBS report.
In another photo, two U.S. guards appear to yuk it up behind a pile of Iraqi prisoners wearing nothing more than sacks on their heads. Iraqis were apparently forced to simulate or perform sexual acts, according to reports. Many U.S. newspapers declined to publish the photos, at least initially.
President Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said they were repulsed by the images. Allegations of torture in Abu Ghraib had been under investigation since March, the Pentagon said earlier.
Throughout April, U.S. forces came under attack from insurgents employing a variety of guerrilla tactics, including roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Every morning seemed to bring reports of troops dying in clusters of two, four or five in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf or elsewhere.
Against that violent backdrop, the clock ticked down to the official U.S. handover of power to the Iraqis on June 30. Critics both inside Iraq and elsewhere charge the transfer will be little more than a charade. Secretary of State Colin Powell and L. Paul Bremer, the Bush administration point man in Iraq, said the U.S. will retain security responsibilities inside the country well after June.
In a significant policy change, the Bush administration welcomed an increased role for the United Nations in Iraq. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi proposed a temporary, streamlined Iraqi power structure that would govern the country from June 30 until a constitution could be created. The current governing council originally appointed by the U.S. would be disbanded. Previously, the Bush administration had been reluctant to let the U.N. lead discussions over Iraq's future.
The move appeared to take some of the wind out of the sails of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Senator John Kerry. For months, he has insisted that the U.S. must internationalize efforts in Iraq.
On the battlefield as well, U.S. commanders demonstrated a new degree of flexibility. On the outskirts of Fallujah Friday, American troops withdrew from positions they had only days before fought to secure. Due to replace them is a new "Fallujah Brigade" of 600 to 1,100 troops under the command of a former general in Saddam's army. Many of the Iraqi soldiers were from Fallujah or the surrounding towns.
The hope: that the Iraqi troops will secure the city with fewer casualties than U.S. forces would have suffered or incurred. The fear: the brigade may simply join the insurgency.
For more on the situation in Iraq, check out "War In Iraq: One Year Later"
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out Choose or Lose.