BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter crashed in a desert sandstorm in the early morning darkness yesterday, killing the 30 Marines and one Navy sailor aboard and prompting a plea by President Bush for American patience with the war effort on “a very discouraging day.”
Six other troops died in insurgent ambushes in the deadliest day for Americans since the Iraq invasion began nearly two years ago.
Only days before Iraq’s crucial elections on Sunday, Muslim terrorists set off at least eight car bombs that killed 13 persons and injured almost 40 others, including 11 Americans.
The terrorists also carried out a string of attacks nationwide against schools that will serve as voting centers.
Mr. Bush held a White House press conference as night fell in Baghdad and the day’s deaths pushed the American toll above 1,400.
“We’ll have the troop levels necessary to complete the mission. And that mission is to enable Iraq to defend herself from terrorists — homegrown or terrorists that come in from outside of the country,” the president said.
In a separate interview with the Arabic satellite news channel Al Arabiya, Mr. Bush commented on both the helicopter crash and Sunday’s election:
“Today, a tragic helicopter accident is a reminder of the risks inherent in military operations. We mourn the loss of life.
“But I am convinced we’re doing the right thing by helping Iraq become a free country, because a free Iraq will have long-term effects in the world, and it will help the people of Iraq realize their dreams and aspirations and hopes.”
The helicopter, a CH-53E Super Stallion, was carrying personnel from the 1st Marine Division on a security mission for the election, when it went down at 1:20 a.m. near the town of Rutbah, about 220 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.
The crash occurred during severe weather, but its cause was under investigation, said Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command.
An AccuWeather map showed sandstorms yesterday in the western region of Iraq near the Jordanian border, where the crash occurred.
A search and rescue team was at the site. The victims were 30 Marines and one sailor, said Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the top Marine commander in Iraq — the most American service members to die in a single incident since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. military has not seen such a high loss of life in one day in 15 years — since an explosion ripped through a gun turret on the USS Iowa during a training exercise in the Caribbean in April 1989, killing 47 sailors.
The deadliest previous incident for U.S. troops in Iraq also was a helicopter crash: a November 2004 collision of two Black Hawk helicopters that killed 17 persons.
Before yesterday’s bloodshed, the most Americans killed in Iraq on a single day came on the invasion’s third day — March 23, 2003 — when 28 troops were killed during the U.S. military’s drive to take Baghdad and topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi security forces and civilians have borne the brunt of violence in Iraq, with bombings often killing scores of people at a time.
Violence has increased ahead of Sunday’s election, which will create a 275-member national assembly and regional legislatures.
Sunni Muslim terrorists have threatened to sabotage the election by killing voters and poll workers.
Many Sunni clerics have called for a boycott because of the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops.
The group calling itself al Qaeda in Iraq warned people to stay away from the polls, threatening attacks.
“Oh people, be careful. Be careful not to be near the centers of infidelity and vice, the polling centers. … Don’t blame us, but blame yourselves if harmed,” according to a Web statement issued in the group’s name.
In addition to yesterday’s crash deaths, four Marines were killed in fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, the military said.
A reporter embedded with those troops, Jim Dolan of WABC in New York City, said insurgents ambushed a Marine convoy leaving the town of Haditha, northwest of Baghdad, hitting a vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Also yesterday, insurgents attacked a U.S. Army patrol near the northern town of Duluiyah, killing one soldier and wounding two others, and in the Baghdad area, a roadside bomb killed another soldier and wounded two others, the U.S. command said.
The day’s deaths brought to at least 1,409 the number of U.S. forces who have died in Iraq, according to an Associated Press count.
A string of political violence continued. Several schools slated to be used as polling stations were bombed overnight.
A suicide bomber detonated a fuel tanker at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the town of Sinjar, southwest of Mosul, killing five and injuring at least 20 persons, KDP officials said.
Earlier in the day, gunmen opened fire on the local headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Communist Party in the city of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killing a traffic policeman.
The KDP and PUK are the two largest Kurdish groups in Iraq and have formed a coalition along with other Kurdish groups to run in the election.
Terrorists also set off three car bombs in rapid succession in the town of Riyadh, north of Baghdad, killing at least five persons — including three policemen.
Four American soldiers were injured in a car bombing yesterday in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, the U.S. command said. Another car bomb targeted a multinational forces convoy on the road to Baghdad’s international airport, injuring four soldiers, the command said.
The attack temporarily closed the airport road, one of the country’s most dangerous.
Another car bombing later hit the same airport road, and an eighth car bomb detonated prematurely in the town of Mashahda, 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing the two men in the car.