On Christmas Eve 2003, three U.S. soldiers died near Samarra on Iraq's Highway One when their Humvee hit an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Three years later, on Christmas Day 2006, three more U.S. soldiers died in Baghdad when an IED detonated near their vehicle.
Read the press releases the Pentagon puts out for every U.S. serviceman or woman killed in Iraq, and a simple and horrible pattern emerges. The real weapon of mass destruction we have discovered in that country is the IED.
Using Defense Department press releases, I counted the overall number of U.S. deaths caused by enemy action and the number of those deaths specifically caused by IEDs in four different periods: Nov. 28, 2003, to Dec. 28, 2003; and the same late-November to late-December periods in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
In the 2003 period, by my count, 28 U.S. servicemen and women were killed by enemy action in Iraq. Nineteen of those were killed by IEDs. In the 2004 period, 63 U.S. servicemen and women were killed by enemy action, 16 of them by IEDs. In the 2005 period, 53 U.S. servicemen and women were killed by enemy action, 42 of them by IEDS. Finally, in the 2006 period, 84 U.S. servicemen and women were killed in Iraq by enemy action, 50 of them by IEDs.
Clearly, IEDs are increasingly the weapon of choice for our enemies in Iraq. Clearly, we have not found an effective way to defeat them.
Furthermore, the routine use of IEDs by our enemies is not the only obvious pattern in the casualties we are taking in Iraq. While 50 of the 84 U.S. deaths by enemy action from Nov. 28, 2006, to Dec. 28, 2006, were specifically attributed to IEDs in Pentagon press releases, 21 of the other 34 involved Marines killed during fighting in the almost exclusively Sunni Anbar Province.
In other words, 85 percent of our casualties in the period were either by IEDs or involved Marines fighting in Anbar.
President Bush has said our goal in Iraq is a nation that can "govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself." This is a political goal, not a military one -- but it is a political goal that must be achieved before our troops can come home if we want to avoid all-out civil war in Iraq, the potential spread of war elsewhere in the region or the establishment of Iraq as a massive safe haven for terrorists.
President Bush's goal is first and foremost dependent on forging reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite-dominated elected government, elements of which are associated with militias that are now killing Sunni civilians, and Iraq's Sunni population, from which springs the insurgency that is still primarily responsible for the casualties our forces are suffering.
If there were a silver-bullet strategy for Iraq, it would simultaneously 1) reduce, if not eliminate, the casualties U.S. Marines are taking in Anbar and other U.S. forces are taking elsewhere by IEDs and other means, while 2) pushing Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis to reconciliation.
Some on the left suggest we can accomplish the first goal simply by withdrawing from the country. But that would remove all our leverage for pushing Shiites and Sunnis to reconcile, and may well lead to broader civil and regional conflict.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona has recommended increasing our forces in Iraq to increase stability, which in turn might create a better environment for negotiating Iraqi-Shiite reconciliation. This approach, however, may well increase U.S. casualties and domestic pressure for a complete pullout. Notable hawks, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former House Armed Service Chairman Duncan Hunter, have not supported McCain's approach.
The day before the November election, Rumsfeld himself sent a memo to President Bush suggesting as "above the line" options: withdrawing "U.S. forces from vulnerable positions -- cities, patrolling, etc.," converting them to "a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance," and positioning "substantial U.S. forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and, importantly, reduce Iranian influence on the Iraqi government."
In other words, Rumsfeld's suggestions split the difference between staying the course and a complete withdrawal. They would almost certainly decrease U.S. casualties in Iraq, while maintaining U.S. ability to deter a civil or a wider war, while pressuring Shiites and Sunnis to reconcile on the political front.
Whatever path the president settles on, both he and his critics should be ready to clearly, thoughtfully and sincerely explain to Americans why they believe that path does, or does not, move us closer to the stability we need in Iraq while costing as little as possible in lost lives and human suffering.