WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The number of suicides by U.S. Army soldiers serving in Iraq dropped by at least half last year.
Nine soldiers' deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom have been ruled suicides in 2004, with three other deaths still under investigation, the Army told UPI. That compares to 24 suicides by soldiers in Iraq in 2003 -- a number that alarmed the Pentagon and prompted an investigation.
Suicide rates are expressed as the number of suicides per 100,000 individuals per year. By that measure, the Army suicide rate in Iraq dropped from 18 per 100,000 in 2003 to 7.9 in 2004. For the Army as a whole, the number of suicides fell from 77 in 2003 to 58 in 2004, dropping the suicide rate from 12.8 per 100,000 in 2003 to 9.5 in 2004.
A cluster of suicides by U.S. troops in Iraq in the summer of 2003 prompted an investigation by a team from the Army Surgeon General's office, which recommended improvements in mental healthcare.
The Army said those improvements -- putting mental-health workers closer to troops, training soldiers to spot those at risk for suicide and installing a countrywide coordinator to deal with combat stress -- helped lower the rate.
Others point to a different possibility. Last year the Army largely quit using an anti-malaria drug called Lariam in Iraq that has been linked to depression, hallucinations, psychosis and rare reports of suicide. It was widely prescribed in Iraq in 2003.
An advocacy group, Lariam Action USA, said the suicide statistics implicate Lariam.
"The obvious external factor was the administration of Lariam in 2003 and the withdrawal of the drug in 2004," said Susan G. Rose, the group's legal adviser.