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Missile Downs U.S. Copter in Iraq, Killing 16 Soldiers

Chinook ferrying troops is hit by a shoulder-fired weapon in the deadliest attack since the war began. Twenty others aboard are injured.

November 03, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

HUWAYSA, Iraq — Resistance fighters used a shoulder-fired missile to bring down a U.S. Chinook helicopter in the barley and wheat fields just west of the Euphrates River here Sunday, killing 16 soldiers and injuring 20 in the deadliest attack on American forces since the war began in March.

The helicopter was ferrying troops attached to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to Baghdad's international airport, where they were scheduled to fly home or to rest-and-recuperation breaks outside Iraq.

After the missile struck at about 9 a.m., the helicopter turned hard and crashed, sending smoke and flames high into the air, witnesses said.

"It's clearly a tragic day for America," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Fox News. "In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days. But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Chinook helicopter -- An informational graphic in Section A on Monday about the U.S. helicopter shot down in Iraq described it as an MH-47 Chinook. It was a CH-47 Chinook.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
Rumsfeld quotation -- Articles in Monday's Section A about the downing of a U.S. helicopter in Iraq quoted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as saying, "It's clearly a tragic day for America. In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days. But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated." Rumsfeld made this comment on ABC's "This Week," not on Fox News, as the stories indicated. Rumsfeld made similar comments regarding the war in Iraq on Fox and other news channels Sunday.

Soldiers rushed from bases in the area to take their comrades to hospitals. At one base outside the nearby city of Fallouja -- a hot spot of Iraqi resistance to the American-led occupation -- soldiers crowded the facility's hospital to help care for the wounded.

"It was a bad sight," said Spc. Michael Carden, who works in public affairs for the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade combat team. Although his job is to write about such events for a small army newspaper, Carden said he could not steel himself to do it.

"I couldn't bring myself to talk to anybody, but then I saw all the guys helping the wounded and bringing medical supplies, working as a team.... It was really touching to see everybody working together. I know [death is] just a fact of war," he said.

"There's been so much bad stuff happening since we got here," he added. "Soldiers dying, civilians dying, innocent or not."

"It just makes it worse that they were almost out of here," said Pvt. Misty Schreirer, a 23-year-old native of Knoxville, Tenn. "Today was pretty bad.... You feel bad, of course, but you kind of get used to it."

The death toll in the downing of the helicopter surpassed the deadliest attack during the war itself: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Sunday's strike began a bloody day for the U.S.-led occupation. Not far from the helicopter crash site, two U.S. contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers were killed by a roadside bomb. A third person was hurt. In Baghdad, a soldier with the 1st Armored Division died when his vehicle was struck by another roadside bomb.

U.S. authorities identified only one of the dead soldiers Sunday. He was Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California. No other details were given, and the names of the other dead and wounded were withheld pending notification of relatives.

A spokesman for Ft. Carson, Colo., said two Chinooks were carrying soldiers from that base as well as Ft. Sill, Okla.; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; and Ft. Hood, Texas.

Lt. Col. Thomas Budzyna said some Ft. Carson troops were among the injured, but he did not know the units or bases of the other casualties.

"Many were looking forward to a break in the action," Budzyna said. "Unfortunately, they faced something else."

President Bush didn't comment on Sunday's high death toll, but Deputy White House Press Secretary Trent Duffy said the president received updates throughout the day.

"We mourn the loss of all brave men and women in the military and elsewhere who pay the ultimate sacrifice to make the world safer and better," Duffy said.

The destruction of the Chinook was the third major attack in little more than a week. On Oct. 26, insurgents fired rockets at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where many coalition troops as well as American and British government staff members were staying, killing one U.S. soldier and injuring seven others. A day later, at least 35 people were killed and more than 200 injured when four car bombs exploded in the capital -- one at the International Committee of the Red Cross and the others at Iraqi police stations. Almost all the victims were Iraqis.

Sunday's strike was a victory for anti-American resistance fighters, who have been using shoulder-fired missiles against aircraft at Baghdad's airport, said officials with the U.S.-led coalition.

In the scattered houses around the crash site, farmers, most of whom make a subsistence living, watched the helicopter's wreckage with quiet satisfaction, almost as if they were honored that the resistance had chosen their area as a staging ground to strike.

Hamid Jassim was picking okra, a vegetable used in Iraqi stews, just a few hundred feet away when he saw the helicopter's tail hit by the missile.

"I was very excited and very happy because they told us they were here to free us, but they are here to occupy us," he said.

The Americans have done nothing to improve their impoverished lives, said villagers who complained about intrusive searches and mass detentions by U.S. soldiers.

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