U.S. copter down in Iraq; 13 dead
BAGHDAD, Iraq – A U.S. military helicopter crashed Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 13 people on board, a new blow to American efforts in Iraq as U.S. and Iraqi forces prepare for a major security operation to pacify the capital and surrounding areas.
The military said the crash was under investigation. The brief U.S. statement lacked the customary comment that the aircraft was not shot down, indicating it may have come under fire by insurgents.
The helicopter was carrying 13 passengers and crew members and all were killed, it said. No further details were released, including the exact location of the crash.
The violent Diyala province sits northeast of Baghdad, and U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia forces around its main city of Baqouba for months.
Separately, the military also announced the deaths of two American soldiers and a Marine.
One soldier was killed Saturday in a roadside bombing in northern Baghdad. Another was killed Friday by a roadside bomb in the northwest province of Ninevah, while a Marine was killed Friday in fighting in Anbar, the military said.
The crash underscored a major danger in Iraq as the military relies heavily on air travel to transport troops and ferry officials to avoid the dangers of roadside bombs.
The worst U.S. aircraft accident since the war began was on Jan. 26, 2005, when a Marine transport helicopter crashed during sandstorms in Iraq’s western desert, killing 30 Marines and a U.S. sailor.
Ahead of the imminent drive to pacify Baghdad, U.S. helicopters dropped off elite Iraqi police forces staging a raid Saturday against an al-Qaida-linked Sunni militant group in Baghdad, killing 15 insurgents and capturing five, the Interior Ministry said.
Members of the militant group were hiding in two abandoned houses in a Sunni stronghold in southern Baghdad, and resisted the assault by the Iraqi forces, who were backed by gunfire from the helicopters, ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.
Those killed and captured were believed to be part of the militant group known as the Omar Brigade, which Khalaf said was behind a series of kidnappings and killings of Shiites in the neighborhood.
“We were provided with helicopter support by our friends in the multinational forces and we did not suffer any casualties,” Khalaf said.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, Iraqi police and hospital officials said a joint U.S.-Iraqi force searched a hospital for an unspecified target in the volatile Sunni-dominated western neighborhood of Yarmouk.
The Americans confiscated weapons and ID cards from the police and guards at the hospital after a confrontation with a guard demanding they leave their weapons at the door, Khalaf said.
“We resolved the matter within minutes and the Americans gave the Iraqi policemen their weapons and IDs cards back and now everything is OK,” he said.
Dr. Haqi Ismail, the hospital’s manager, said the raid occurred at 4:30 a.m.
“They were looking for someone, they searched all the rooms and the emergency unit,” he said.
The U.S. military did not respond to request for comment on either raid.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are gearing up for a joint security operation aimed at ending attacks between Shiites and Sunnis that have been spiraling since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
President Bush has committed an additional 21,500 American soldiers for the drive and U.S. commanders have been promised a freer hand against both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen.
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said Friday that he thought some of the extra troops for Baghdad might return home after a few months.
The deaths highlighted a major danger for U.S. forces in Iraq, where the military relies heavily on air travel to avoid the dangers of roadside bombs.
“I think it’s probably going to be the summer, late summer, before you get to the point where people in Baghdad feel safe in their neighborhoods,” Casey said.
On Friday, U.S. and Iraqi forces swooped into a mosque complex in eastern Baghdad before dawn and detained Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji. The office of Muqtada al-Sadr said al-Darraji was media director for the cleric’s political movement and demanded his immediate release.
The U.S. military, in a statement that did not name al-Darraji, said special Iraqi army forces operating with U.S. advisers had “captured a high-level, illegal armed group leader” in Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighborhood, which is adjacent to Sadr City, the stronghold of al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. It said two other suspects were also detained.
Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of al-Sadr’s bloc in parliament, accused U.S. forces of trying to provoke the Sadrists into violence ahead of the security operation.
He said al-Darraji “is a peaceful man and what was mentioned in the American release is lies and justification for the aggression against al-Sadr’s movement.”
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