Insurgents say they have new anti-copter methods

U.S. military trying to verify claim after four choppers lost

February 03, 2007|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military is trying to determine whether insurgents have developed new techniques for shooting down helicopters after the crash near Baghdad yesterday of a fourth U.S. helicopter in two weeks, a top general said.

In a claim of responsibility posted on an Islamist Web site, an al-Qaida-linked insurgent group said it had recently acquired "new methods" for shooting down U.S. helicopters, something that could have a major impact on the U.S. military effort in Iraq if it turned out to be true.

According to a brief U.S. military statement, the Apache attack helicopter crashed near the town of Taji, north of Baghdad, at 7:20 a.m., killing the two soldiers on board. The military said the cause is under investigation.

On Sunday, an Apache was downed during fierce fighting with a Shiite cult outside Najaf.

On Jan. 20 a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Baghdad, apparently under fire, killing all 12 soldiers on board.

On Jan. 23, five private security contractors died when their helicopter crashed while under heavy fire in Baghdad.

The military has not confirmed that the helicopters were shot down. But in Washington, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was taking a "hard look" at the circumstances under which they went down and acknowledged that insurgent fire appeared to have become more effective recently.

There has been "more effective ground fire - or ground fire that has been more effective against our helicopters in the last couple of weeks," he said.

The military is trying to determine whether "this is just statistically what's going to happen over time when you're flying at that level and people are shooting at you, or if there are some kind of new tactics and techniques that we need to adjust to," he said.

Claiming responsibility for yesterday's attack was the Islamic State of Iraq, a self-proclaimed government of a new Islamic state declared by al-Qaida in Sunni areas of the country last fall.

"The air-defense brigade of the Islamic State of Iraq successfully shot down an Apache helicopter and burnt it completely near the oil reservoirs in Taji, Albu Assaf area," the statement said, promising to post pictures of the attack.

"Allah has helped its soldiers and showed them new methods for confronting your air force."

There was no way of authenticating the statement, which appeared on a Web site normally used by al-Qaida-affiliated groups. If insurgents have acquired the capacity to regularly shoot down helicopters in Iraq, it could paralyze the U.S. mission, experts say.

Helicopters are vital to the military effort in Iraq because road travel is so perilous. Even in Baghdad, soldiers commute between bases by helicopter, skimming barely 150 feet above the rooftops to evade insurgent fire.

Helicopters fly hundreds of missions around the country daily, with few reported crashes. Insurgents routinely fire on them but have not proved effective at shooting them down on a regular basis. The last time a helicopter was confirmed to have been shot down was in May 2006.

The military's biggest concern is that insurgents will acquire guided Stinger missiles or their equivalent. The shoulder-fired missiles use infrared technology to lock on to low-flying helicopters. They were supplied by the United States to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and played a major role in the defeat of the occupying Soviet army.

Helicopters in Iraq regularly emit flares to deflect heat-seeking missiles, but until now there has been no evidence that the insurgency has acquired such missiles in significant numbers or has the ability to use them.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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