A grim statistic from Iraq dominated headlines on Wednesday: the 1,000th American death since the U.S. invasion of that country began in March 2003. The mark was reached on Tuesday, when officials announced that six soldiers had died in various incidents spanning Monday and Tuesday.
The somber milestone comes as the situation in Iraq is again taking center stage in the run up to the November presidential election.
On June 28, then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer transferred sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government headed by President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Following the earlier-than-expected transfer of power, much of the public displeasure with the situation in Iraq began to take a back seat to other issues. According to a USA Today/ CNN/ Gallup poll conducted over Labor Day weekend, 20 percent of likely voters rated the "situation in Iraq" as an "important issue."(The economy and terrorism both rated higher, with 31 percent of likely voters calling both important issues.) That number is down from the same poll conducted on July 19-21, when 27 percent of likely voters identified the situation in Iraq as important.
However, the insurgency against the U.S. and Iraqi military forces continues to grow in ferocity: Nearly 15 percent of all American casualties have taken place in recent weeks. And as the Pentagon announced 1,000 American war deaths, the debate over Iraq again became a central issue between the candidates.
Speaking to supporters in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Democratic nominee John Kerry accused the president of making "catastrophic choices that cost us $200 billion because we went it alone" and said that the country has "paid an even more unbearable price in young American lives."
President Bush marked the milestone by issuing a statement at his weekly cabinet meeting. "We mourn every loss of life, and we'll honor their loss by completing the mission [in Iraq]," he said.
During their Labor Day campaign stops, both candidates began using increasingly simple language to state their positions on Iraq. Kerry called it "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," while Bush said that the war was "right for America then, and it¹s right for America now."
Neither candidate has laid out a plan as to what he will do in Iraq over the next four years, though Senator Kerry has recently pledged that American troops would be returned from that country during his first term in office.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq seems to be far from stable. The various factions of the Iraqi resistance have been galvanized by the actions of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, known as the Imam Mehdi army, has fought with American and Iraqi troops on and off since April. In August, al-Sadr rallied disparate dissidents when he disobeyed a call by the Iraqi interim government to halt a three-week standoff with U.S. and Iraqi troops surrounding the Imam Ali mosque in the holy city of Najaf.
The Najaf standoff was brought to a peaceful end by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful cleric in Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community. A recent poll of Iraqis by the International Republican Institute found al-Sistani to be the most popular public figure in the country, with an approval rating of nearly 74 percent.
The popularity of al-Sistani, who is not a political figure, comes as both sides of the conflict seek to gain the upper hand in public-opinion battles. Al-Sadr remains a leading figure only to a specific group of Iraqis — particularly the 3 million residents of Sadr City, a slum in Baghdad — and his actions have not endeared him to a majority. But many Iraqi are not yet eager to throw their confidence toward the interim government, as it is seen as being controlled by the U.S.
So where does this leave the American military? Caught in the crossfire. Speaking to PBS on Wednesday, Defense Department consultant Sam Gardiner said that the daily attacks on U.S. troops have grown from an average of 20 a day in October 2003, to an average of 35 a day in late June 2004, to 87 a day in August 2004.
According to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times correspondent stationed in Baghdad, there are many towns where U.S. troops no longer patrol for fear of instigating violent situations. And while many Iraqis don't like various insurgent groups, the Americans are disliked even more. The instability is such that Filkins said on "The Charlie Rose Show" Wednesday that "it's inconceivable how they could hold elections" in many parts of Iraq.
For more on the situation in Iraq, check out "War In Iraq: One Year Later"
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