- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military tried to determine yesterday whether insurgent gunfire caused the crash of two Black Hawk helicopters, killing 17 soldiers in the worst single loss of American life since the war in Iraq began.

Meanwhile, an audiotape purportedly by Saddam Hussein urged Iraqis to escalate attacks against the occupation and “agents brought by foreign armies” — Iraqis who support the coalition.

The speaker on the tape, aired on Al Arabiya television, said the only way to end the chaos in Iraq was for Saddam and his now outlawed Ba’ath Party to return to power.

U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, took the offensive, with the military mounting operations in Baghdad and Saddam’s home region of central Iraq. The military fired a satellite-guided missile with a 500-pound warhead at a guerrilla training base. There was no immediate information on casualties or damage. In a separate clash, four insurgents were killed.

“Any of those groups that are working against the best interest of the Iraqis are going to be targeted,” said Army Lt. Col. William MacDonald, spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division.

Explosions thundered through central Baghdad after sundown yesterday, apparently part of Operation Iron Hammer, a new “get tough” strategy of going after insurgents before they strike.

Late yesterday, a large number of U.S. troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters moved into the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Azamiyah, sealing off a 20-block area and searching vehicles.

The CIA said it would review the purported Saddam tape for its authenticity, but President Bush dismissed the recording.

“I suspect it’s the same old stuff. It’s propaganda. We’re not leaving until the job is done, pure and simple,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m sure he’d like to see us leave, if in fact it’s his voice. I know the elements of the Ba’athist Party, those who used to torture, maim and kill in order to stay in power, would like to see us leave.”

The voice in the recording resembles Saddam’s but is huskier, and the speaker appears tired.

“The evil ones now find themselves in crisis, and this is God’s will for them,” the voice says. “The land and fire of glorious Iraq that God has blessed with jihad because of valor in resistance … will swallow hundreds of thousands of troops that … will never achieve their plans,” the speaker says.

The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said Saddam likely made arrangements for a guerrilla war against the Americans before his regime fell to U.S. troops in April.

“I think there are some indications that he had prepared for a low-intensity conflict, terrorist war, the kind we’re seeing now, beforehand,” Mr. Bremer said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There had been some documents that have come to light since liberation that suggest there were preparations.”

In northern Iraq, the U.S. military was investigating whether insurgent ground fire caused the crash of two helicopters belonging to the 101st Airborne Division. The helicopters went down in residential neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. There were no civilian casualties.

“There are reports that there may have been ground fire, and one of them may have been trying to avoid that. We just don’t know at this point,” Mr. Bremer said.

All the victims were from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., a military spokesman said. Division spokesman Maj. Trey Cate said one helicopter carried a quick-response team and was on its way to investigate a shooting incident in which a soldier was injured. The other helicopter was on a transport mission.

In Mosul, five U.S. soldiers were injured when a roadside bomb detonated under their convoy, the military said.

Before the Saturday crash, the military’s deadliest single incident since the Iraq war began March 19 was the downing of a Chinook helicopter near Fallujah on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. A Black Hawk was also shot down Nov. 7 in Tikrit, killing all six soldiers aboard.

The Saturday crash raised to 417 the number of Americans who have died in Iraq since the invasion, including combat and noncombat deaths.

Elsewhere, four Iraqi insurgents were killed late Saturday in two separate clashes with U.S. troops in Diyala province, Col. MacDonald said.

With casualties mounting, the Bush administration has agreed to speed the transfer of power to the Iraqis, establishing a provisional government by June.

However, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned yesterday that the accelerated plan does not mean U.S. troops will withdraw soon. The issue of troops is “on a separate track” from the political timetable, he said.

On the streets of Iraq, there were mixed feelings.

“I would hope the Americans would leave even before June. We prefer they leave as soon as possible since their staying here causes all the problems,” said Hussein Abaid, 52.

But Essai Khallaf Jabar, 48, disagreed.

“It’s hard to satisfy all the desires of Iraqi people. Finding a leader is not going to be easy,” he said. “I still wish the Americans would stay longer, four or five years, to take care of security.”

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