- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq — Guerrillas fired small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter after it came down in a field near Tikrit yesterday, wounding one soldier and causing the aircraft to explode in flames, the U.S. military said.

Rockets also were fired at a hotel known to house U.S. service members, journalists and civilian employees. The number of casualties was not known at press time.

Near the flash-point city of Fallujah, three civilians were killed and two wounded when their convoy came under fire. An American engineer and an Iraqi security guard said U.S. troops shot at their vehicles, but the military denied the claims.

In later fighting, six to eight rockets struck the Al-Rasheed Hotel this morning, where U.S. military and civilian employees stay, a spokesman with the U.S. military said. The spokesman said there were an “unknown number of casualties,” and a quick reaction force had been dispatched to the scene.

The hotel is located in an area tightly controlled by the U.S. military on the western side of the Tigris River near the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition.

During the continuing violence, U.S. military officials prepared for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in Iraq tomorrow. For weeks, chaplains have been training troops to be sensitive to Muslim traditions.

Meanwhile, a nighttime curfew in effect in Baghdad since April was being lifted.

“The curfew can be lifted due to the reduction in the crime rate in the city and the overall improvement in the security situation,” the U.S.-appointed Baghdad city council said in a statement. “Despite some highly publicized attacks by terrorists and supporters of the former regime, the overall security situation in Baghdad has improved.”

Most Iraqi cities no longer have a curfew.

Yesterday, U.S. forces reopened a major bridge over the Tigris River to ease transportation in the capital of 5 million people. An American military brass band played as the bridge was inaugurated.

The Black Hawk came down at about 4 p.m. in a field near ousted strongman Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said the helicopter landed for undetermined reasons. He said the Black Hawk — which usually carries a crew of three — was supporting a combat patrol.

A preliminary report by U.S. soldiers, however, said the copter was apparently downed by ground fire, possibly by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Witnesses said they heard a loud explosion as two helicopters flew low overhead. Suddenly, one of the aircraft began swaying from side to side and came down about a mile away.

Only one U.S. helicopter has been confirmed shot down by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1. A U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter was shot down June 12 by hostile fire in western Iraq. The craft’s two crew members were rescued unhurt.

In the incident near Fallujah, three SUVs of European Landmine Solutions, a Britain-based private contractor, were hit by gunfire, according to an American engineer with the firm, David Rasmussen, who was hospitalized with wounds.

Asked where the shots came from, Mr. Rasmussen replied: “from the U.S.A.”

The Iraqi security guard traveling with the convoy, Laith Yousef, gave the same account.

“We were the target of an attack by the Americans,” Mr. Yousef said. “They shot at our car. The translator burned to death in the car. A man with us was killed. He was going to get married next week.”

A U.S. command spokesman in Baghdad denied troops fired at the convoy, saying that, instead, coalition forces went to secure the area after the attack and evacuated the wounded.

Also near Fallujah, Iraqi civilians reported a roadside bombing last night in the town of Khaldiyah. They said several U.S. soldiers appeared to have been wounded.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, on a three-day tour of Iraq, was in Tikrit earlier yesterday visiting a U.S. garrison. He left the city hours before the helicopter came down and was in the northern city of Kirkuk, U.S. officials said.

Before leaving Tikrit, Mr. Wolfowitz, who arrived Friday, told commanders he was hopeful American troops would get more money to train Iraqis to assume a greater role in security as they fight resistance forces.

“These young Iraqis are stepping forward to fight for their country along with us,” Mr. Wolfowitz said. “It is a wonderful success story that speaks volumes.”

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