Brigade to complete Iraq troop increase

Contingent including 152 helicopters to arrive in country soon

May 06, 2007|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- The final troop contingent in President Bush's plan to improve security, a brigade that includes 152 attack and transport helicopters, will arrive in the Iraqi capital soon, a U.S. commander said.

With the arrival of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry, based in Savannah, Ga., the addition of 28,500 troops begun in mid-February will be complete. The brigade will be based at Camp Victory near the Baghdad airport, Maj. Gen. James Simmons, deputy commander of multinational forces, said Friday.

As the buildup neared completion, violence continued in the capital. A suicide bomber in a line with police recruits outside an Iraqi base near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad detonated an explosive vest yesterday, killing 15 people and injuring 26, police said. In Kut, southeast of Baghdad, nine insurgents and four Iraqi police were reported killed in a battle.

In the north, an explosion aimed at a police patrol in the center of Kirkuk killed two civilians and injured three police. To the south, the Basra airport was reported closed until further notice after insurgent attacks yesterday damaged a runway.

The new air combat brigade will increase the U.S.-led force's helicopter fleet by 34 percent. Also coming are 3,200 pilots, crew, mechanics and other support personnel.

Helicopters are increasingly important tools in the war because insurgent attacks have made ground transport dangerous in many areas of Iraq.

Despite the increased reliance of the U.S. military on choppers, there had been no increase in the fleet since the war began in March 2003, Simmons said.

The announcement in March that the air combat brigade, as well as almost 4,000 other support troops, were coming in addition to 21,500 extra troops committed to Iraq infuriated war opponents who saw it as a backdoor method of squeezing more troops into an unpopular conflict. When completed, the buildup will bring the U.S. troop level in Iraq to 160,000.

Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are locked in a bitter struggle over an Iraq war funding bill. Bush vetoed a bill last week that would have made future funding for the war conditional on a timetable for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The current helicopter fleet in Iraq includes 449 choppers. With the arrival of the new brigade, Iraq will be home to four of the Army's 10 air combat units.

Since June 2003, 58 helicopters have been lost in Iraq, of which 28 were shot down by ground fire. The rest crashed in accidents. According to a tally by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, 179 people died in those crashes.

Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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