- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter was shot down and crashed north of Baghdad yesterday, the military said after initially stating that the chopper made a “hard landing.” All aboard were safely evacuated by a second helicopter.

At least seven U.S. helicopters have crashed or been forced down under hostile fire since Jan. 20. Military officials have said that militants are increasingly targeting helicopters amid the buildup of U.S. troops in Baghdad, firing simultaneously with an assortment of weapons from different directions.

The military also has detected another deadly insurgent tactic in recent weeks — the spreading of toxic chlorine gas by combining it with explosives.

In Washington, two Pentagon officials said the tactic has been used at least three times since Jan. 28, when a truck carrying explosives and a chlorine tank blew up in Anbar province west of Baghdad. More than a dozen people were reported killed.

On Tuesday, a tanker filled with chlorine exploded and noxious plumes covered homes and schools north of Baghdad. Nine persons were killed and 150 wounded, said one of the officials. A day later, a pickup truck exploded near a diesel-fuel station in southwestern Baghdad, the official said.

A third defense official said the United States has been concerned about militants’ ability to acquire weapons like chlorine bombs. But so far, the official said, bomb makers in Iraq haven’t been able to disperse a chemical such as chlorine in an effective way.

All three officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

In the latest violence, a suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint in the Shi’ite city of Najaf, killing 13 persons in the spiritual heartland of the militia factions led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The blast hit while streets were filled with morning shoppers. At least seven of the victims were police and the rest civilians, authorities said. It was the first large-scale bombing in months in the city, which is heavily guarded by police and Sheik al-Sadr’s powerful Mahdi’s Army militia.

On Aug. 10, a suicide attack near the Imam Ali mosque in the city killed at least 35 persons and wounded more than 100.

A car bomb in the western Baghdad district of Bayya killed at least two and injured 31, police said. Later, a car bomb in the neighborhood killed at least three persons.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a U.S. Marine was killed Tuesday in fighting in volatile Anbar province, the military said.

Meanwhile political tremors grew stronger in Iraq following claims that a Sunni woman was raped while in custody of the Shi’ite-dominated police — a case that threatens to escalate the sectarian friction that drives many of the bombings and attacks across the country.

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