Black Hawk crash kills 6 U.S. troops

Rocket-propelled grenade may have downed copter

`No one could have lived'

Deadliest week in Iraq since end of major combat

November 08, 2003|By E.A. Torriero | E.A. Torriero,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TIKRIT, Iraq - Six U.S. soldiers were killed as their Black Hawk helicopter crashed near the Tigris River here yesterday morning, apparently downed by ground fire. With two more deaths elsewhere, 32 Americans have been killed in Iraq over the past seven days, making it the deadliest week since the end of major hostilities.

Several U.S. Army officers at the scene of the crash and a nearby base said it was likely that the Black Hawk was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, making it the third U.S. helicopter destroyed by hostile fire in two weeks.

Still, a military statement said the cause of the crash had not been determined and was under investigation. A pilot of an accompanying helicopter did not see anything fired from the ground, U.S. commanders said.

In two other attacks yesterday, two U.S. soldiers were killed - one by a roadside bomb and another in an ambush of gunfire - near the northern town of Mosul, which has seen a marked increase in anti-U.S. assaults.

Yesterday's fatalities brought the death total since the start of the conflict in Iraq to 263.

Coming less than a week after 16 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded when insurgents attacked a transport Chinook, yesterday's incident shows the vulnerability of U.S. helicopters to ground fire. A Black Hawk was destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade two weeks ago, wounding one soldier, just yards from yesterday's crash site.

Helicopters are susceptible as they fly along the Tigris River. Insurgents can hide among trees and along the riverbeds without detection. Tikrit is the hometown of ousted President Saddam Hussein, and the neighborhoods that line the river are filled with sympathizers, including former military officers.

After taking off from a nearby base, two helicopters were flying in formation over the west side of the Tigris about 9:45 a.m. yesterday, witnesses said. Four crew members from the 101st Airborne Division were ferrying two U.S. soldiers to Mosul, the military said.

"I was watching them fly, as I always do, when suddenly there was a boom," said Sigar Zuhair Ghani, 21, an area resident who was rebuilding a family house. "Something hit where the pilot is, and it shook the helicopter."

Marwan Thamir, 12, who was playing with friends nearby, looked up and saw the helicopter wobble and catch fire.

"Then its head starting going toward the ground," he said.

Marwan Hussein, 31, who lives on a bluff overlooking the river, was awakened by the noise and saw the helicopter falling. It split into two pieces before hitting an island of grass and thick trees, witnesses said.

The tail and front section lay some 200 yards apart.

"No one could have lived," Hussein said.

U.S. soldiers who occupy a riverside palace that once belonged to Hussein heard the crash and ran to an overlook to see the helicopter wreckage in flames. Two ground and aerial military rescue and recovery teams rushed to the scene.

"You could see them evacuating four to five bodies," Hussein said as he surveyed the scene with binoculars.

U.S. soldiers kept crowds away from the bluff and scoured the neighborhood for signs of insurgents and weapons. The military reinstated a curfew in the area, which had been lifted for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Iraqi police Lt. Yousif Jihad said investigators were sure the helicopter was downed by a projectile fired from one of the neighborhoods.

"We are looking very hard for where they fired from," he said.

But U.S. military commanders warned against rushing to judgment, saying mechanical failure has not been ruled out.

Black Hawks in Iraq are equipped with flares and defense mechanisms to avoid heat-seeking missiles, a U.S. military spokesman said. But they do not have a defense against rocket-propelled grenades, he said.

After the attack on the Chinook on Sunday, the U.S. command decided to change the routes of helicopters, vary their timetables and fly more at night.

But residents say that the helicopters are easy prey and that many people who oppose the American-led occupation keep watch on them.

"They fly over us all the time and provoke us," said Waleed Jabi Fari, 25, a resident who described himself as a former officer in Hussein's elite Republican Guard. "We want to shoot more of them down, and we will."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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