By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - September was one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in the 18-month-old war in Iraq, and the death toll for the first time has risen four straight months.
At least 76 U.S. troops were killed this month, reflecting a steady increase in American deaths since the United States transferred sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on June 28, officially ending the occupation, according to a count of U.S. fatalities announced by the Pentagon.
Forty-two U.S. troops were killed in June, 54 in July and 66 in August.
Only three other months have produced a higher American death count than September since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein.
The highest death count, with 135 U.S. military fatalities, came this past April, with the simultaneous flaring of the insurgency in the so-called Sunni Triangle and in the Shi'ite south. Eighty were killed in May as well.
In November 2003, 82 U.S. troops died during a spike in insurgent violence that coincided with the Islamic holy month Ramadan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the worsening violence by insurgents, and said it "will very likely increase" ahead of national elections scheduled for January.
"I think they're getting worse because the people that oppose the Iraqi government and are determined to not have a democratic system there and want to reestablish the Baath Party and a terrorist state are determined to stop it," Rumsfeld told a radio interviewer this week.
"If they can disrupt things, they feel they've been successful. But they're basically killing Iraqis. They're killing a lot of Iraqis, innocent citizens. They're also killing a lot of Iraqi security forces, six or seven hundred of them. And, indeed, they're killing coalition members as well," Rumsfeld said.
The United States has about 138,000 troops in Iraq, with about another 22,000 British, Polish and other foreign troops there as well.
'LOSING SLOWLY BUT STEADILY'
Defense analysts said the Pentagon is struggling to forge a winning strategy against an insurgency that is intensifying and spreading.
"I personally think that the Bush administration is waiting to get through the (Nov. 2) American elections before it uses its military in a much more decisive fashion to suppress insurgent activity," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank.
Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute think tank noted the number of daily attacks launched by insurgents against U.S. and other foreign troops and Iraqi security forces are surging, indicating a further deteriorating security situation.
"I think we're losing slowly but steadily," Carpenter said. "I think we're sinking deeper into the quick sand."
The U.S. military death toll in Iraq passed the 1,000 milestone on Sept. 7, and it stood at 1,052 in the Pentagon's latest figures released on Thursday.
There were eight days in September in which at least four U.S. troops were killed, including two days in which 10 or more died. On Sept. 6, 12 U.S. troops died, including seven Marines killed in a single car bombing near Falluja, one of several cities that have become virtual "no-go" zones for the U.S. military and havens for insurgents. On Sept. 13, 10 U.S. troops died, including six in Anbar Province.