U.S. copters crash, killing 2 in Iraq

2 American soldiers hurt

four other troops die in separate car bombings

October 17, 2004|By Ashraf Khalil and Said Rifai | Ashraf Khalil and Said Rifai,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two U.S. Army helicopters crashed in Baghdad yesterday, killing two soldiers, as the military reported that four other American troops had died in car bombings elsewhere in Iraq. Insurgents also firebombed five Christian churches in the capital, causing damage but no injuries.

Military officials said they were investigating what caused the helicopters to crash last night in southwest Baghdad, the capital. Two other soldiers were wounded in the crashes.

The other American deaths came in two incidents in northern Iraq. A suicide car bomber struck a U.S. patrol near the town of Qaim along the Syrian border Friday, killing two soldiers, one Marine and an Iraqi translator, the U.S. military reported yesterday. Another soldier died of injuries suffered Friday in a car bombing near Mosul, about 220 miles north of the capital. Names of the deceased were withheld pending family notification.

In the "Sunni Triangle" city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, many residents fled yesterday in anticipation of a U.S. military invasion after negotiations with city leaders broke down a day earlier. U.S. forces yielded control of the rebel focal point in April and haven't patrolled the city since. Last night, American warplanes launched airstrikes against reported militant strongholds in Fallujah.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has issued an ultimatum to residents of Fallujah to turn over Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, believed to be responsible for a series of car bombings and beheadings in Iraq. U.S. forces suspect that Zarqawi is operating openly in the city.

U.S. forces and the Iraqi government are on a sustained military and political push to end parallel Sunni and Shiite-based rebellions and secure the country before parliamentary elections scheduled for January. In both cases, the political approaches appear to be faltering.

In Baghdad's Shiite bastion of Sadr City, militants from radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army continued to turn over weapons as part of a peace agreement to end weeks of violent clashes in the tightly packed slum. But U.S. military officials have complained that the vast majority of suspected weaponry remains at large, and the weapons transfer, originally scheduled to end Friday, has been extended through today.

The series of coordinated early-morning church attacks was the latest strike against the Christian minority in this predominantly Muslim country. In August, 11 people were killed when insurgents bombed five Christian churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

The future of the fledgling peace agreement with al-Sadr, meanwhile, hinges on the extent to which U.S. and Iraqi leaders are satisfied that the Mahdi Army has disarmed. So far, the military is expressing frustration with the progress.

Capt. Brian O'Malley, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry, said that the weapons surrendered were a small fraction of Sadr City's hidden arsenal. "We still haven't seen the numbers we were expecting," he said, particularly for heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, submachine guns and explosive material.

"We need to have thousands and thousands of different kinds of heavy weapons," he said. "So far, we've only broken 1,000 in one category."

During the first days of the transfer, which started Monday, residents mostly turned in weapons that were "unserviceable and old, basically not the type of weapons that show [the Mahdi Army] is serious about disarmament," O'Malley said.

But on Friday, residents began turning in heavier, newer weapons such as mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades - occasionally by known Mahdi fighters.

"We received two antiaircraft guns in perfect working order," O'Malley said. "The guys who turned it in said, `Yeah, we've been shooting at your helicopters.' `'

The weapons transfer is being run by the Iraqi government, with U.S. troops providing security. But U.S. forces will play a large role in any military push through Sadr City should the final handover result be deemed insufficient. Iraqi government and police officials have been meeting nightly with Sadr representatives and passing along their dissatisfaction, O'Malley said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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