- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

BAGHDAD — A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down in northern Iraq, killing all 12 Americans thought to be aboard in the deadliest crash in nearly a year, while five U.S. Marines died in weekend attacks, the military said yesterday.

The deaths followed an especially bloody week in which about 200 Iraqis and a dozen U.S. troops were killed. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, said they were making headway in forming a stable coalition government after the Dec. 15 elections, for which final results might be released this week.

U.S. military officials said the UH-60 Black Hawk crashed just before midnight Saturday about seven miles east of Tal Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border that has seen heavy fighting with insurgents.

“All [those killed] are believed to be U.S. citizens,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said. He did not say what caused the crash, but bad weather has wracked most of Iraq.

The Black Hawk was part of a two-helicopter team providing support for the 101st Airborne Division and was flying between bases when communications were lost, the military said. The helicopter was found about noon yesterday.

The helicopter was part of Task Force Band of Brothers and attached to the 101st Aviation Division, but Maj. Tom Bryant, spokesman for the division’s 3rd Brigade, said the helicopter was not from Fort Campbell, Ky., and belonged to another unit, which was not identified.

It was the deadliest helicopter crash in Iraq since a CH-53 Sea Stallion went down in bad weather in western Iraq on Jan. 26, 2005, killing 31 U.S. service members.

In Saturday’s crash, records indicated that eight passengers and four crew members were aboard.

Elsewhere, three Marines were killed yesterday by small-arms attacks in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. Two other Marines were killed Saturday by separate roadside bombs.

With the latest Marine deaths, at least 2,199 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. That toll did not include those killed aboard the Black Hawk.

In other violence yesterday, five persons died in separate attacks in Baghdad, including a policeman killed by a suicide car bomber targeting an Interior Ministry patrol. Seven others were wounded.

Meanwhile, a French engineer abducted Dec. 5 apparently was dumped on a Baghdad street by his fleeing captors and recovered by U.S. troops, who turned him turned over to the French Embassy, according to Iraqi police and the French Foreign Ministry in Paris.

Bernard Planche, 52, was kidnapped on his way to work at a water plant. He worked for a private relief organization called AACCESS and was found Saturday night near a checkpoint in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood. His captors had demanded the withdrawal from Iraq of French troops — even though the country has none in Iraq.

The French Foreign Ministry said Mr. Planche should be returning to France shortly.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin thanked U.S. authorities, as well as French diplomatic and intelligence officials, for their help in Mr. Planche’s “liberation during a securing operation.”

The leader of Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political group said after meeting President Jalal Talabani that significant headway had been made in efforts to form a government of national unity.

“Talabani and I have an identical point of view regarding the formation of a national unity government based on consensus,” Adnan al-Dulaimi said.

Mr. al-Dulaimi confirmed that Iraq’s two Kurdish leaders, Mr. Talabani and Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani, have been mediating with other groups to form a coalition government.

Their efforts seem to have produced an understanding between the main Shi’ite religious bloc and Mr. al-Dulaimi’s group — two traditionally hostile camps whose enmity threatens to plunge Iraq into sectarian warfare.

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