BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A U.S. helicopter with 12 passengers and crew members crashed in northern Iraq, killing all on board, the military command said yesterday. In addition, five Marines were reported killed in action, bringing to as many as 28 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since Thursday.
The crash of the UH-60 Black Hawk military chopper late Saturday was the deadliest in Iraq since a Chinook transport helicopter went down last January near the Jordanian border, killing 30 Marines and a sailor.
A spokesman for U.S.-led forces would not confirm the nationalities or the identities of those killed in the Black Hawk, pending notification of next of kin. "At this time we believe all the victims were U.S. citizens," a spokesman said.
The cause of the crash was under investigation, and it was not immediately known whether the aircraft came under fire from insurgents. A military spokesman noted, however, that the Black Hawk went down amid high winds and heavy rainfall.
There have been nearly two dozen fatal helicopter crashes in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003, killing at least 144 people, according to a tally by the Associated Press. Some of the wrecks have been accidents, and others have been the result of hostile fire.
The Black Hawk helicopter was one of two on night operations Saturday and had lost radio contact with the other aircraft before crashing in a sparsely populated area about 8 miles east of Tal Afar, a city near Mosul.
The military often flies missions at night, including the transport of troops via helicopter. But aviation experts say darkness can complicate making an emergency landing, difficult in a chopper under the best of circumstances.
"Helicopters are fairly unstable vehicles that need constant pilot attention," said Peter Field, a Vietnam-era Marine colonel and former director of the Navy's test pilot school at Patuxent River. "Flying over the vacant desert at night would pose a little bit more of a task for the pilot."
Field, a St. Louis-based civil aviation consultant, says investigators can ascertain fairly quickly whether a crash was caused by mechanical error or hostile fire once they reach the fuselage.
"If the aircraft were hit by surface-to-air missile or rocket-propelled grenade, you'd be able to tell," he said. "The crash site won't contain the whole vehicle. There will be parts that fell along the way."
Nearby Tal Afar has long been a site of insurgent activity. In September, U.S. planes bombed several houses in Tal Afar, which one military official referred to as a "terrorist incubator," after the town's residents were urged to evacuate. Weapons caches and high-tech bomb factories were uncovered by U.S. troops.
In ground action, three of the five Marines killed over the weekend were slain by small-arms fire in separate engagements with enemy gunmen yesterday in the city of Fallujah. The U.S. military also reported two Marines riding in separate vehicles near Ferris and Karmah died when they were attacked by roadside bombs.
With the latest Marine deaths, at least 2,199 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. That toll did not include those killed aboard the Black Hawk.
On Thursday, 11 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed around the country amid bombings and other insurgent attacks.
In other violence, gunfights broke out yesterday between insurgents and Iraqi police in the al-Adel neighborhood of western Baghdad, leaving one officer killed and 13 wounded.
A suicide car bomb targeted the convoy of Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, killing two and injuring five. The official was unharmed.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders have attempted to quell the insurgency by drawing Sunni Arabs into the government. Adnan Dulaimi, a leader of the main Sunni Arab slate in last month's election, met yesterday with interim President Jalal Talabani and expressed willingness to bring his coalition into government "so long as no side will dominate the government."
Meanwhile, a French engineer abducted Dec. 5 apparently was dumped on a Baghdad street by his fleeing captors and recovered by U.S. troops, who turned him over to the French Embassy yesterday, according to Iraqi police and the French Foreign Ministry in Paris.
Bernard Planche, 52, was kidnapped on his way to work at a water plant. Planche worked for a nongovernmental organization called AACCESS and was found Saturday night near a checkpoint in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood. His captors had demanded the withdrawal from Iraq of French troops -- even though the country has none in Iraq.
Yesterday, U.S.-led forces raided the Umm Qura Mosque in Baghdad, headquarters of the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line group of clerics the United States has accused of terrorist activities. The clerics held a news conference to denounce the action during which coalition forces broke down doors and rifled through files.
And under heavy security, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad visited yesterday a pediatric hospital in Baghdad whose renovation is one of 19 such projects the U.S. government is financing in Iraq. He said the Americans are investing in children "because they are the future of this country."
"The goal is to get Iraq on its feet, Iraqis looking after Iraqis," Khalilzad told reporters at the hospital in eastern Baghdad.
A health official attached to the U.S. Embassy said the United States will have spent $786 million on Iraqi medical infrastructure over the three years ending this September.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.