BAGHDAD (AP) – The American military death toll in the Iraq war reached 2,000 yesterday with the announcements of three more deaths, including an Army sergeant who died of wounds at a military hospital in Texas and a Marine and a sailor killed last week in fighting west of Baghdad.

The 2,000 mark was reached amid growing doubts among the American public about the Iraq conflict, launched in March 2003 to destroy Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. None was ever found.

In Washington, the U.S. Senate observed a moment of silence in honor of the fallen 2,000. “We owe them a deep debt of gratitude for their courage, for their valor, for their strength, for their commitment to our country,” said Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“Our armed forces are serving ably in Iraq under enormously difficult circumstances, and the policy of our government must be worthy of their sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is not, and the American people know it,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.

President Bush warned the U.S. public to brace for more casualties in the fight against “as brutal an enemy as we have ever faced, unconstrained by any notion of common humanity and by the rules of warfare.”

“No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead,” Bush said in a speech yesterday before the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ luncheon in Washington.

As a sign of those challenges, one of Iraq’s most ruthless terror groups – al-Qaida in Iraq – claimed responsibility for Monday’s suicide attacks against hotels housing Western journalists and contractors in Baghdad, as well as suicide bombings yesterday in northern Iraq.

In the latest casualty reports, the Pentagon said Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas, died Saturday in San Antonio of wounds suffered Oct. 17 in a blast in Samarra, a city 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital.

Earlier yesterday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two unidentified service members – a sailor and a Marine – in fighting last week in a village 25 miles west of Baghdad. Those announcements brought the U.S. death toll to 2,000, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

It was unclear who was the 2,000th service member to die in Iraq since the U.S. military often delays death announcements until families are notified. On Monday, for example, the U.S. command announced that an unidentified Marine was killed in action the day before – after the deaths of the three service members reported yesterday.

In an e-mail statement to Baghdad-based journalists, command spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said media attention on the 2,000 figure was misguided and “set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives.”

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