BAGHDAD, Iraq – The American military death toll in the Iraq war reached 2,000 Tuesday with the announcements of three more deaths, including an Army sergeant who died of wounds at a military hospital in Texas and two Marines killed last week in fighting west of Baghdad (search).
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 (search).
Critics of the war also acknowledged the sacrifice, even as they questioned the policies of those who lead it.
"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 (search), the Massachusetts Democrat.
Sen. Robert Byrd (search), a veteran Democrat from West Virginia, said Americans should expect "many more losses to come."
"More than 135,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. They did not ask to be sent to war, but each day, they carry out their duty while risking their lives. It is only reasonable that the American people, and their elected representatives, ask more questions about what the future holds in Iraq," Byrd said.
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 Tuesday 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 Qaeda in Iraq — claimed responsibility for Monday's suicide attacks against hotels housing Western journalists and contractors in Baghdad, as well as suicide bombings Tuesday in northern Iraq.
In the latest casualty reports, the Pentagon (search) 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 Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of two unidentified Marines 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 Tuesday.
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."
He described the grim statistic as an "artificial mark on the wall" and urged news organizations to focus more on the accomplishments of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
For example, Iraqi officials announced Tuesday that voters had approved a new constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum, laying the foundation for constitutional, democratic Iraqi government after decades of Saddam's tyranny.
"I ask that when you report on the events, take a moment to think about the effects on the families and those serving in Iraq," Boylan wrote. "The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone."
Boylan said the 2,000th service member to die in Iraq "is just as important as the first that died and will be just as important as the last to die in this war against terrorism and to ensure freedom for a people who have not known freedom in over two generations."
He complained that the true milestones of the war were "rarely covered or discussed," including the troops who had volunteered to serve, the families of those that have been deployed for a year or more, and the Iraqis who have sought at great risk to restore normalcy to their country.
"Celebrate the daily milestones, the accomplishments they have secured and look to the future of a free and democratic Iraq and to the day that all of our troops return home to the heroes welcome they deserve," Boylan wrote.
In the latest fighting, U.S. and Iraqi troops raided insurgent safe houses Tuesday northwest of Qaim, a tense town near the Syrian border along a major infiltration route for foreign fighters. At one safe house, where women and children were also staying, an exchange of fire detonated an insurgent's suicide vest, causing the roof to collapse, a U.S. statement said.
"The women and children were rescued from the rubble and treated by medical personnel," the statement added. U.S. aircraft then destroyed three buildings after the survivors were taken to a safe area, the statement said.
Elsewhere, suicide car bombs exploded Tuesday in the generally peaceful Kurdish province of Sulaimaniyah, killing 12 people. Al Qaeda (search) in Iraq claimed responsibility in an Internet statement.
The group also said it was behind the three suicide car bombs aimed at the Palestine and Sheraton hotels in Baghdad. Deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal said 17 people were killed — mostly hotel guards and passers-by — in Monday's attack, which involved bombers driving two cars and a cement truck.
The U.S. soldier who shot and killed the truck driver said he initially had a hard time seeing the truck drive through the breach that the first car explosion had created in the concrete wall.
"Once the dust and the debris settled down, I noticed the truck had already breached through our perimeter," Spc. Darrell Green told CNN American Morning. "He backed up and then pulled forward. As he was doing that, I engaged in machine gun and took out the driver. If he had made it through, he could have done a lot more damage, a lot more casualties than what actually happened."
In a Web posting, Al Qaeda in Iraq said it carried out the hotel attack to target a "dirty harbor of intelligence agents and private American, British and Australian security companies." The hotel complex houses offices of the AP and other media organizations.
Also Tuesday, insurgents killed six Iraqis — a 7-year-old boy, two Iraqi soldiers and three policemen — and wounded 45 others in a series of attacks in Baghdad.
A video posted on an Islamic extremist Web site showed a U.S. soldier being shot in Iraq while guarding an armored vehicle. The militant Islamic Army in Iraq said one of its snipers killed the soldier in Baghdad on Monday, but the U.S. military said it could not verify the authenticity of the claim.