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5th copter in month goes down in Iraq

Seven U.S. troops die. The recent crashes raise concerns that insurgents are adjusting tactics.

February 08, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The CH-46 helicopter thundered low over Al Anbar province, its two rotors thumping loudly over the flat landscape of orchards and farms. Then, with a loud bang, it began swinging wildly in the sky before careening downward and crashing in flames before stunned witnesses.

The crash Wednesday about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad, which killed all seven troops on board, was the fifth of a U.S. helicopter in Iraq in less than three weeks and the second in six days, underscoring an increased peril facing troops as they take to the skies to avoid roads littered with hidden explosives.

The cause of the latest crash has not been determined. But three other military choppers and a civilian helicopter have been shot down since Jan. 20, leading strategists to wonder whether insurgents may have adjusted their tactics apace with U.S. shifts in strategy. In all, 27 troops and private security contractors have died in the crashes.

Military officials say as long as there are more helicopters in the air, there are more chances of crashes. But at a Senate hearing Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, acknowledged that there could be more than numbers at work: "At this point in time I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us or has there been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy," he said when questioned about the helicopter losses.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said that what was notable about the recent shoot-downs was that they were attributed to small-arms fire rather than missiles.

That indicates that insurgents have noticed the military's change in flight methods and adjusted accordingly, Thompson said. Once the U.S. began flying lower to evade high-flying missiles, insurgents apparently traded in missiles for rocket-propelled grenades or machine guns that can down a helicopter flying just a couple of hundred feet above ground, he said.

"Look at the dilemma we're in here. It's hard for us to use the roads because of the proliferation of improvised explosives," Thompson said. "But when we try the alternative of flying by helicopter, they shoot us high and they shoot us low."

Within hours of Wednesday's crash, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda posted a message on its website claiming it had downed the helicopter. The same group asserted that it had shot down another U.S. helicopter that crashed Friday north of Baghdad amid heavy gunfire. Two crew members were killed in that incident, which the group said was part of a new campaign to drive U.S. troops out of Iraq.

'A very loud boom'

Witnesses to the latest crash said the CH-46 Sea Knight, a troop carrier that resembles a bus with rotors on each end, was flying a few hundred feet above the ground when they heard an ear-splitting bang they described as gunfire or rocket fire.

"I saw fire and smoke from the chopper," said Muhsin Aftan, 30, a farmer tending his wheat and barley fields at the time. "The chopper then was swinging and hit the ground, causing a very loud boom."

Another witness, taxi driver Ahmed Said, 40, said he stopped his car and watched as flames began shooting from the helicopter while it was still airborne. "I saw the chopper was on fire and pivoting in the air, and it crashed on the ground and made a big boom sound," he said.

Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a military spokeswoman in Baghdad, said there were no data immediately available about how many helicopters were in use in Iraq on any given day. She said more than a million man-hours had been logged in helicopters since the war's start in March 2003 for various journeys, including combat and medical missions.

Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said it was too early to suggest that the loss of a handful of helicopters in a short time span indicated a significant trend.

"When you're dealing with unusual events, even small random fluctuations can create things that look like trends even if there isn't one. When you look at all the missions helicopters fly every day in Iraq, a shoot-down is very unusual," Biddle said.

Even if the recent losses did prove to represent new insurgency practices, he said, they were part of the usual cat-and-mouse game of warfare.

U.S. forces, Biddle said, could respond with new methods of their own. "There are a lot of tactical adaptations we can make that can reduce the vulnerability of these helicopters," he said.

In addition to the seven killed in the crash Wednesday, U.S. military officials reported two more troop deaths. A Marine was killed in fighting in Al Anbar, and a soldier was slain in an attack southwest of Baghdad. Since the war began, at least 3,111 U.S. troops have died, according to the website icasualties.orgwhich tracks the numbers.

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