Two or three al Qaeda terrorist cells in Iraq are behind the recent series of helicopter shootdowns, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps, Iraq, told reporters that the downing of several helicopters involved common tactics, techniques and procedures used by terrorists.
“We’re trying to understand what those are, learn about it so we can protect our aircraft, but more importantly, try to go after the cells,” the three-star general said. “I believe they’re al Qaeda-associated cells.”
Eight helicopters in Iraq have been shot down or have crash-landed after ground fire since Jan. 20. Some of the attacks involved shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
Military officials at first sought to blame the downings on mechanical problems, but later information revealed most were hit by enemy fire. One attack on a UH-60 Black Hawk north of Baghdad resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers. A third Black Hawk was shot down Wednesday and Gen. Odierno said initial reports indicate “enemy fire” was the cause.
“We are aggressively examining the conditions of each incident and adapting tactics and techniques to address the issue,” Gen. Odierno said, noting that the military is increasing the use of helicopters because most casualties are occurring from improvised bomb attacks on ground vehicles.
Two persons linked to the helicopter attacks are being questioned, including one who took part in one of the shootdowns. The terrorist “admitted that he was involved in one of them,” Gen. Odierno said.
“And we’ve done a couple of operations over the last few nights, and I think we’ve also gotten into another part of a cell who might have shot down another aircraft, one of the aircraft. So we continue to work this extremely hard,” he said.
The aircraft attacks were carried out from “ambush sites that were set up by some of our foes,” Gen. Odierno said, noting that “I think they’ve probably been trying to do this for a long time, but my guess is we have a cell out there that’s somewhat effective.”
The increase in the helicopters attacks comes as U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a major, months-long program to pacify Baghdad, where much of the insurgency against the new Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition forces is taking place.
Gen. Odierno said one breakthrough was the discovery by an Army airborne unit Tuesday of a car bomb factory near Karma, about 12 miles northeast of Fallujah.
“The unit discovered numerous artillery rounds, mortar rounds, bombs, rockets, gutted anti-aircraft shells, a pickup truck and three other vehicles that were already in various stages of preparations as car bombs, as well as much detonation material,” he said.
The factory also contained material that is being used to enhance bombs, such as fertilizer and chlorine in cylinders.
“We also found the various components of a metal shop, including welders, burner stoves, circular saws, sanders and other items needed to build explosive devices,” he said.
Asked about the insurgent’s use of chlorine bombs, Gen. Odierno said over the past two years there have been attempts to use different chemicals to boost the lethality of improvised bombs and chlorine “is just another way to do it.”