- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter went down yesterday in Iraq in the fourth such incident in two weeks, killing two troops on board, and America’s top general acknowledged that U.S. aircraft were increasingly in danger from groundfire.

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.

The military, acknowledging the loss of the Army helicopter in a statement, did not identity the type of aircraft nor say what caused it to go down.

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

“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.”

Three other helicopters — two military and one civilian — have been lost in Iraq since Jan. 20. All three were thought 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 are already known to have anti-aircraft weapons 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 Thursday night and yesterday after insurgents opened fire on American troops from several positions in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. 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.

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.

The U.S. military said six troops were killed Thursday, two in fighting in Anbar province, one of an apparent heart attack and three in vehicle accidents.

The deaths raise to at least 3,092 members of the U.S. military who have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 2,480 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military’s numbers.

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

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