- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

1:32 p.m.

BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter went down today in Iraq — the fourth one in two weeks — and America’s top general acknowledged that U.S. aircraft were increasingly in danger from ground fire.

Witnesses and local police said two helicopters were flying together when gunmen opened fire, sending one of the aircraft crashing to the ground, smoke trailing behind it, near Taji, an air base just north of Baghdad. Maj. David Small, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., confirmed that a helicopter had gone down but said he had no details.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today that clearly, “ground fire … has been more effective against our helicopters in the last couple weeks.” The comments marked the first time a military official has publicly acknowledged that recent crashes were caused by ground fire.

“I’ve taken a hard look at that; don’t know whether or not this is statistically what’s going to happen over time, when you’re flying at that level and people are shooting at you, or if this is some kind of new tactics or techniques that we need to adjust to,” he said.

Three other helicopters — two military and one civilian — have been lost in Iraq since Jan. 20. All three were believed to have been shot down.

The U.S. military relies heavily on air transportation in Iraq to avoid roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes, and the recent spate of losses has raised questions about whether Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias may have stepped up attacks on helicopters or may have received new supplies of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. Sunni insurgents already are known to have anti-aircraft weapons as well as rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

Since May 2003, the U.S. military has lost 54 helicopters in Iraq, about half of them to hostile fire, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, said 18 insurgents were killed in fighting last night and today after insurgents opened fire on the Americans from several positions in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. No civilian or U.S. casualties were reported, the military said.

Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar where Sunni insurgents remain well-entrenched, has seen some of the bloodiest street battles of the war.

U.S. forces returned fire with machine guns, tanks and finally a missile, which struck the intended target, killing at least 15 insurgents.

Insurgents renewed their attacks today, prompting U.S. forces to fire another missile that killed at least three insurgents. No civilian or U.S. casualties were reported in either attack, the military said.

Elsewhere in Anbar, gunmen assassinated the Sunni chairman of the Fallujah City Council, Abbas Ali Hussein, an outspoken critic of al Qaeda, the third council leader to be killed in a year.

Iraqi officials in Hillah, a Shi’ite city about 60 miles south of Baghdad, announced a three-day mourning period after yesterday’s devastating suicide attack. Police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Khaled said at least 73 persons were killed and 163 wounded.

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