WASHINGTON -- The number of US soldiers wounded in Iraq in one month surged to its highest level in nearly two years as Americans fight block-by-block in Baghdad to try to check a spiral of sectarian violence that US commanders warn could lead to civil war.
Last month, 776 US personnel were wounded in action in Iraq, the highest number since the military assault to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004, according to Defense Department data. It was the fourth-highest monthly total since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The sharp increase in American wounded -- with nearly 300 more in the first week of October -- is a grim measure of the degree to which the US military has been thrust into the lead of the effort to stave off full-scale civil war in Iraq, military officials and analysts say.
Beyond Baghdad, Marines battling Sunni insurgents in Iraq's violent western province of Anbar last month also suffered their highest number of wounded in action since late 2004.
More than 20,000 US personnel have been wounded in combat and 2,700 killed in the Iraq war. While much media reporting has focused on the number of dead, military analysts say the number of wounded is a more accurate gauge of the fierceness of fighting because advances in armor and medical care allow many service members to survive who would have perished in past wars.
The ratio of wounded to killed among US forces in Iraq is about 8 to 1; it was 3 to 1 in the Vietnam War.
``These days, wounded are a much better measure of the intensity of the operations than killed," said Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The surge in wounded comes as US commanders issue increasingly dire warnings of the threat of civil war in Iraq, all but ruling out cuts in the current contingent of more than 140,000 US personnel before the spring of 2007.
Last month General John Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, said ``sectarian tensions, if left unchecked, could be fatal to Iraq," making it imperative that the US military focus its ``main effort" on Baghdad.
Thousands of additional US troops have been ordered to Baghdad since July to reinforce Iraqi soldiers and police who failed to halt killings of Iraqi civilians by rival Sunni and Shi'ite groups.