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Last Updated: Monday, 1 December, 2003, 22:58 GMT
US weathers Iraq troop losses
BBC News Online's Rachel Clarke
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington

The US military suffered its worst monthly death toll since the end of major combat in Iraq, losing 79 soldiers in November mostly in enemy attacks.

US Warrant Officer Sharon Swartworth, killed in an attack on a Black Hawk helicopter
Casualties like Sharon Swartworth are commemorated in the media
But the cries to pull troops out have not grown louder and indeed both public and politicians seem prepared to accept the setbacks as part of a longer-term battle which needs fighting.

Some pundits and media observers seem keen to find similarities between the ongoing operation in Iraq and the Vietnam War which dragged on amid mounting public opposition until the US decided nothing more could be gained and pulled out.

But there simply is not the depth of feeling and interest as there was 30 years ago when newspapers and broadcasts were dominated by the war, when some sections of the public were so outraged by what was happening that they spat at returning soldiers and when losses reached the tens of thousands.

We can take these kinds of casualties indefinitely as long as people believe in the mission
Anthony Cordesman,
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior state and defence department official, said the debate about Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was an important one. But in general Americans were prepared to move beyond that to consider the merits of ridding Iraq of its dictator, even if that cost lives.

Historically the death toll remains low, and need not affect operations, he said.

"We can take these kinds of casualties indefinitely as long as people believe in the mission," he told BBC News Online.

In Iraq itself, events such as Sunday's ambush of a US convoy and subsequent firefight in which 54 Iraqis died could actually help troops.

"When people sit around a garrison... you can be sure that morale deteriorates. When you have a combat situation, it improves," said Mr Cordesman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Looking beyond casualties

He stressed that the military fight was only one of four areas where there needed to be success in Iraq - with progress also needed in terms of the political situation, the economy and aid, and communications and information.

A soldier places a helmet on a rifle in memory of US troops killed in an attack on a Chinook helicopter
2 November: 16 killed when insurgents shoot down Chinook helicopter near Fallujah
7 November: 6 killed when Black Hawk helicopter downed near Tikrit
15 November: 17 killed when two Black Hawks under fire collide near Mosul
68 US soldiers killed in enemy attacks, 11 more in non-combat situations during November

In terms of domestic politics, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute said the Bush administration still had time to win the arguments as well as the peace, with the public able to look beyond immediate casualty figures to the goals.

"The president has been pretty successful over the past two years in rallying American public opinion behind him despite mistakes and missteps and unexpected, unfortunate events," he told BBC News Online.

The coming election year will bring the matter into focus with whoever the Democrats pick as White House challenger having to come up with options for Iraq rather than simple criticism, he said.

Like Mr Cordesman, Mr Donnelly rejected the over-simplistic comparisons with Vietnam. Americans have not yet been subjected to years of the "water torture" of reports of military and civilian deaths, nor is there yet a hopelessness that the situation can be resolved.

An opinion poll conducted after the first two helicopter attacks and as news of the Mosul was breaking showed a public divided but still with a majority saying it was worth going to war.

The findings of the Gallup survey from the middle of November did suggest that more Americans disapproved of the handling of the operation since the major fighting ended - 55% to 42%, a five-point increase in the critics.

But slightly more Americans than the previous month believed the Iraq war had made the US safer from terrorism, up to 48% from 45% with 43% saying they felt their country was less secure.

New headlines

Since those polls were taken, more soldiers have died but for the public watching television and reading newspapers, there have been other big Iraq stories.

These included President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving visit to troops in Baghdad which dominated the news throughout what was a holiday weekend for Americans.

December has already had its first US casualty and newspapers and TV stations run the photos and names of each dead soldier.

But while honoured, mourned and commemorated, dead soldiers are not yet a turning point for the US in Iraq.

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