More than 6000 American servicemen and women have been evacuated for medical reasons since the war began, four times the number reported to have been wounded, the British newspaper The Observer reported on Sunday.

The US military and their bosses in the administration have portrayed the invading force’s casualties as being relatively light. The new figures will pressure President George Bush to try harder to share the burden of occupying Iraq with other nations.

Early attempts to round up troops and money from traditional and recent allies hit the rocks when Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, rejected a French proposal as 'totally unrealistic'.

New casualties

Four US soldiers have been killed over the past week, bringing the number of combat dead since major military operations in Iraq were declared officially over on 1 May to 69. A similar number have died in accidents.

It is estimated that about 10 soldiers are wounded every day the occupation continues.

But they have remained largely hidden, as it is military policy to announce that a soldier has been injured only if they were hurt in an incident that also involved a death.

The Pentagon claims that the reason the numbers are so high is that the modern body armour, worn by most American soldiers, means that normally fatal wounds are avoided.

Critics of the policy say it hides the true extent of the casualties. According to the website lunaville.org, that compiles its numbers from official reports, 1178 American soldiers have been wounded in combat operations since the war began on 20 March.

The real number may be much higher, once you factor in the reported 313 who were hurt in “friendly fire” incidents or accidents, then those unreported thousands who have suffered lasting physical or mental health problems from their long tours of duty in Iraq.

Some American units, such as the Fourth Infantry Division, have been on the frontline for over six months.

Body armour

The Pentagon claims that the reason the numbers are so high is that the modern body armour, worn by most American soldiers, means that normally fatal wounds are avoided. However, vulnerable arms and legs are affected badly. This has boosted the proportion of maimed among the injured.

Dealing with the aftermath of amputations and bomb blast injuries is common. Mines, home-made bombs and rocket-propelled grenades are the weapons of choice of the Iraqi resistance fighters. They cause the sort of wounds that will cost a soldier a limb.

The wounded return to the USA with little publicity, the Washington Post reports. Giant C-17 transport jets on medical evacuation missions land at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, every night.

"Our nation doesn't know that," said Susan Brewer, president and founder of America's Heroes of Freedom, a nonprofit organisation that collects clothing and other personal items for the returning troops, to the Washington Post. "Sort of out of sight and out of mind."

Battlefield casualties are first treated at Army field hospitals in Iraq then sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany, where they are stabilised for the flight back home.

Then Andrews is the first stop back in the States. The wounded walk or are stretchered into a fleet of ambulances and buses that waits at the C-17s most nights to take off the most seriously wounded.

Those requiring urgent operations and amputations are ferried to America's two best military hospitals, the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, near Washington, and the National Naval Medical Centre, Bethesda.

Another website, www.iraqbodycount.org, has calculated from media reports that the  number of Iraqi civilians to have been killed in the conflict is between 6125 and 7843, with over 20,000 injured.