Sunday, January 21, 2007

BAGHDAD - A U.S. Army helicopter crashed northeast of the capital yesterday, killing all 13 persons on board on one of the deadliest days for U.S. forces since the Iraq war began. At least five other American soldiers died in an attack blamed on militiamen in the city of Karbala.

The crash and other deaths came as a brigade of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Baghdad and prepared for deployment in early February the first of the 21,500-troop buildup ordered by President Bush.

The division’s 2nd Brigade with 3,200 soldiers will “assist Iraqi Security Forces to clear, control and retain key areas of the capital city in order to reduce violence and to set the conditions for a transition to full Iraqi control of security in the city,” the military said.

The military gave little information on the crash of the Black Hawk during good weather in Diyala province, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias around the city of Baqouba for months.

Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a U.S. spokeswoman, said the cause of the crash had not been determined. Navy Capt. Frank Pascual, a member of a U.S. media-relations team in the United Arab Emirates, told Al Arabiya television that the helicopter was believed to have suffered technical troubles before going down.

It was the fourth-deadliest crash since the war started in March 2003. The worst occurred Jan. 26, 2005, when a Marine transport helicopter went down during a sandstorm in the western desert. Thirty Marines and one sailor were killed the most U.S. personnel to die in a single incident in Iraq.

The U.S. military later reported that militia fighters attacked a provincial headquarters in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Karbala, killing five American soldiers and wounding three last night.

The military said “an illegally armed militia group” attacked the building with grenades, small arms and “indirect fire,” which usually means mortars or rockets.

“A meeting was taking place at the time of the attack to ensure the security of Shi’ite pilgrims participating in the Ashoura commemorations,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, deputy commander of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad.

Karbala is 50 miles south of Baghdad and thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims are flocking to the city to mark the 10-day Ashoura festival commemorating the death of one of Shi’ite Islam’s most sacred saints, Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

Gen. Brooks said Iraqi officials and security forces as well as U.S. troops were present at the meeting, but his statement did not mention other casualties from the attack. It said the headquarters had “been secured by coalition and Iraqi security forces.”

Earlier, Karbala Gov. Akeel al-Khazaali had reported that U.S. troops raided the provincial headquarters looking for wanted men but left with no prisoners. But Gen. Brooks said that report was incorrect.

The general did not identify any group suspected of staging the attack, but residents reached by telephone had reported seeing military helicopters flying over the local headquarters of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia, which has been accused of playing a big role in sectarian killings, has been hit repeatedly in recent weeks by operations in which key commanders have been captured or killed by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military announced that combat Friday had killed an Army soldier in Nineveh province and a Marine in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital.

In south Baghdad, U.S. helicopters dropped Iraqi police commandos into the dangerous Dora neighborhood to stage a raid on the Omar Brigade, an al Qaeda-linked Sunni militant group, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.

Mr. Khalaf said 15 insurgents were killed and five captured during an intense battle at two abandoned houses taken over by Sunni gunmen, who he blamed for a series of kidnappings and killings in a bid to cleanse the once-mixed neighborhood of Shi’ite residents.

“We were provided with helicopter support by our friends in the multinational forces, and we did not suffer any casualties,” Mr. Khalaf said. U.S. aircraft gave covering fire, but the U.S. military did not respond to a request for comment on the raid.

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers voiced increasing anger over Friday’s capture of a senior aide to the radical cleric in a raid in eastern Baghdad.

Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of Sheik al-Sadr’s bloc in parliament, accused U.S. forces of trying to provoke the Sadrists into violence during the expanding campaign to quell Iraq’s fighting.

“We condemn strongly the arrest of Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji. He is moderate and well-known as a media personality and always available in negotiations,” Mr. al-Rubaie said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces reportedly detained Mr. al-Darraji during a raid on a mosque complex before dawn Friday.

Police reported at least 16 Iraqis slain in attacks yesterday. In addition, officials said 29 bodies were found in Baghdad and three in the northern city of Mosul, most of them showing signs of torture a hallmark of killings by sectarian death squads.

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