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Chopper Shot Down in Iraq, Killing 13 GIs

By TINI TRAN, Associated Press Writer

FALLUJAH, Iraq - A U.S. Chinook helicopter carrying troops en route home for leave was struck by a missile Sunday and crashed west of Baghdad, killing 13 soldiers and wounding more than 20, the U.S. command and witnesses reported.

 It was the deadliest day for American troops in the six-month-old occupation of Iraq, and came amid threats attributed to Saddam Hussein's party of a wave of violence against the U.S. occupation.

There was still no sign of the rumored "Day of Resistance" allegedly planned for Baghdad on Saturday. But at least one other American soldier was confirmed killed Sunday in ground attacks here and elsewhere in central Iraq.

Witnesses said they saw two missiles fired at the heavy transport copter, the biggest U.S. target yet shot from the skies by Iraq's insurgents. It had been ferrying soldiers to Baghdad International Airport for flights out of the country for rest and relaxation, or R&R.

The aircraft was hit at about 9 a.m. and crashed amid cornfields near the village of Hasi, about 40 miles southwest of Baghdad and just south of Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance to the U.S. occupation.

Insurgents have fired on U.S. aircraft before, downing two helicopters, and American military officials have repeatedly warned that hundreds of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam's regime in April.

"The Chinook was shot down by an unknown weapon," a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said on condition of anonymity. U.S. command in Baghdad said there were 13 killed and more than 20 wounded, and that a search was under way for possible other survivors.

The death toll surpasses the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured, including Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

The helicopter was part of a formation of two Chinooks carrying a total of more than 50 passengers to the U.S. base at the former Saddam International Airport, renamed Baghdad International Airport, which the military calls BIA.

"Our initial report is that they were being transported to BIA for R&R flights," a U.S. command spokeswoman in Baghdad said. She said at least some were coming from Camp Ridgway, believed to be an 82nd Airborne Division base in western Iraq.

At the scene, villager Thaer Ali, 21, said someone fired two missiles from the area of a date palm grove about 500 yards from where the stricken copter crashed.

Yassin Mohamed, another witness, said he ran out of his house, a half-mile away, when he heard an explosion. "I saw the Chinook burning. I ran toward it because I wanted to help put out the fire, but couldn't get near because of American soldiers."

Witnesses said the second copter hovered over the downed craft for some minutes and then set down, apparently to try to help extinguish a fire. The downed copter was already destroyed.

At least a half-dozen Black Hawk helicopters later hovered over the area, and dozens of soldiers swarmed over the site. Injured were still being evacuated at least two hours later. Villagers displayed blackened pieces of wreckage to arriving reporters.

"This was a new lesson from the resistance, a lesson to the greedy aggressors," said one Iraqi in nearby Fallujah, who wouldn't give his name. "They'll never be safe until they get out of our country," he said of the Americans.

Others were celebrating word of the helicopter downing and also a fresh attack on U.S. soldiers in Fallujah itself, where witnesses said an explosion struck one vehicle in a U.S. Army convoy at about 9 a.m. Sunday. They claimed four soldiers died, but U.S. military sources said they couldn't confirm the report.

In a separate incident, the U.S. command said a soldier from the 1st Armored Division was killed just after midnight in an explosion in Baghdad.

In the Abu Ghraib suburb, local Iraqis said U.S. troops arrived Sunday morning and ordered people to disperse from the marketplace and remove what the Iraqis said were religious posters from walls. Someone then tossed a grenade at the Americans, witnesses said, and the soldiers opened fire.

The U.S. command said it had no immediate information, but Iraqi witnesses said they believed three or four Americans were killed and six to seven Iraqis were wounded.

The presence of the portable anti-aircraft missiles has represented a significant threat for military aircraft and raised concerns over the security of the few commercial flights in and out of Baghdad International Airport. The U.S.-led coalition has offered rewards of $500 apiece to Iraqis who turn the weapons in.

The Chinook was the third helicopter known to have been brought down by Iraq's insurgents since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1.

A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter crash-landed Oct. 25 in Tikrit after being hit by an unknown weapon, injuring one crewmember. On June 12, a U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter was shot down by hostile fire in the western desert, and two crewmembers were rescued unhurt.

The Pentagon had announced Friday it was expanding the home leave program for troops in Iraq, to fly more soldiers out of the region each day and take them to more U.S. airports. As of Sunday, it said, the number of soldiers departing daily via a transit facility in neighboring Kuwait would be increased to 480, from 280.

The workhorse, 10-ton Chinook, which has a crew of four, is the military's most versatile heavy-lift helicopter, used primarily for troop movements, transporting artillery and similar functions.

The downing of the Chinook came after what U.S. occupation chief L. Paul Bremer on Saturday called "a tough week" in Iraq, beginning with an insurgent rocket attack on Sunday against a Baghdad hotel housing hundreds of his Coalition Provisional Authority staff members. One was killed and 15 wounded in that attack.

A day later, four coordinated suicide bombings in Baghdad killed three dozen people and wounded more than 200, and that was followed by widespread rumors and leaflets threatening an escalation in the anti-U.S. resistance.

Attacks against U.S. forces had already stepped up in the previous week, to an average of 33 a day.


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