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Coalition deaths fewer than in 1991

'We became stronger while Saddam became weaker'

By Patrick Cooper

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, killed in Iraq on March 27, 2003, was buried at Arlington National Cemetary
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, killed in Iraq on March 27, 2003, was buried at Arlington National Cemetary

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

(CNN) -- As the fighting winds down, U.S.-led coalition deaths so far in this war in Iraq are far fewer than those killed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

As of Thursday, 157 U.S. and British troops had died in the war, less than half the 358 coalition deaths in Desert Storm.

In 1991, 148 U.S. forces were killed in action. In this war, 109 Americans have died in combat. Noncombatant U.S. deaths in Desert Storm numbered 145; the number so far in this war is 17.

So-called friendly fire deaths -- when troops accidentally fire on allies or their own units -- are counted among combat deaths. Thirty-five happened in 1991 and fewer than a dozen in this war.

On the down side, the number of British deaths was higher in this war, 31 compared with 24. Many of the 31 deaths came during a pair of helicopter accidents last month.

Although several other countries have contributed personnel to this war effort, none have suffered deaths. (In 1991, France and allied Arab nations lost 41 troops.)

Factors on both sides of the fighting resulted in fewer coalition casualties, according to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, a military analyst for CNN.

A deteriorating Iraqi economy and technological advances gave the coalition a greater advantage in almost all aspects of the battlefield, Shepperd said.

"We became stronger while Saddam became weaker. ... We can bring appropriate and overwhelming firepower to bear at times and places of our choosing, while Saddam can only respond to what attacks him," he said.

After the 1991 war, Iraq was "severely hampered" by sanctions and had trouble re-arming, while the United States was significantly upgrading its military capabilities, Shepperd said.

Also, the U.S. military has improved its precision, response strategies and training during the past 12 years, he said.

The Pentagon has not said when it will declare the present war finished. But with almost all of Iraq's major cities under coalition control, it would take a major twist in the coalition's fortunes to match the toll of Desert Storm.

The coalition has avoided an attack as deadly as the Dhahran strike of 1991. In that incident, an Iraqi Scud missile hit U.S. barracks near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 troops and wounding more than 100.

But Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told CNN on Sunday the number of American losses this time still troubled him.

"Someone made a comment to me the other day that we've had amazingly few casualties. And I said, 'Well, I don't know how we can say that.' The perfect plan spends no treasure and has no casualties," Franks said.

"We have spent treasure and we have had casualties. I believe that we ought to all recognize that if you're a mom, a dad, a husband, a wife of someone lost in a war, the casualties have not been low."

Smarter weapons, strategies cut losses

The U.S. military has kept casualties in mind as it develops weapons and war plans. "We know almost everything about Iraqi military dispositions and can attack them with appropriate air power first, while he knows nothing about us," Shepperd said.

Gen. Tommy Franks
Gen. Tommy Franks

Search-and-rescue operations have also greatly improved, he said. Better training techniques have decreased accidents and allowed the military to bloodlessly test strategies.

The Pentagon has touted the precision of its weapons, saying it results in fewer Iraqi civilian deaths. Although figures are hard to come by, media reports indicate that fewer Iraqi civilians have been killed in this war in Iraq than in the last.

After Desert Storm, the Iraqi government estimated 35,000 civilians had died. Abu Dhabi TV reported on April 8 that Iraqi sources claimed 1,252 civilians had been killed and 5,103 had been wounded in this conflict.

The antiwar Iraq Body Count project, which is monitoring and compiling media reports of Iraqi civilian casualties, estimates between 1,631 and 1,887 civilians had died as of April 17.

On the battlefield, however, unknown thousands of Iraqi soldiers have been killed. U.S. Central Command has given few figures on the subject, but officials did estimate 2,000-3,000 Iraqi troops were killed in one day alone, during an April 5 blitz into Baghdad.

The U.S. estimated more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the 1991 Gulf War, but human rights groups claimed much higher numbers.

Friendly fire deaths

Friendly fire deaths have continued to haunt British forces. In the 1991 war, nine of the 24 British fatalities came from friendly fire. In this war, six of the 31 British fatalities have been attributed to friendly fire.

Five of the British deaths from friendly fire in this war came from a Basra tank incident and when a Patriot missile shot down a Royal Air Force plane.

The sixth death -- which happened when a U.S. A-10 plane fired on two British light armored vehicles -- echoed a Gulf War incident in which a U.S. A-10 plane attacked two British infantry vehicles in daylight. That incident accounted for all nine of the British friendly fire deaths in 1991.

Since then, the British Ministry of Defense has been under intense pressure to reduce those deaths. A Parliament committee took the ministry to task in August 2002, saying ministry solutions were "years away from fruition."

In addition to the accidental attacks on British troops, U.S. forces also attacked a friendly Kurdish military convoy on April 6, killing 18.

U.S. friendly fire deaths drop

Two American deaths were officially attributed to friendly fire in this war, but several others are being are investigated as friendly fire-related, according to U.S. Central Command.

The final number will almost certainly be down from the 35 such deaths of U.S. troops in 1991.

The 1991 deaths happened for some of the same reasons friendly fire incidents have happened in all wars: troops misidentifying targets, usually because of weather and battlefield conditions, and coordination problems.

In this war, despite fierce sandstorms and skirmishes with irregular forces, the Pentagon has used technology to help identify "blues," the color the military designates its own forces and its allies.

A new digital system called the "Blue Force Tracker" uses satellite signals to map out positions and aid communications.

"We know where our people are and can command and control them," Shepperd said.

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