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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: THREAT TO HELICOPTERS

Copters still best option, pilot says

February 12, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — An Army pilot said Sunday that enemy fire hit at least 17 U.S. helicopters a month in Iraq but that flying time for troops was growing because of the risks of road travel.

Maj. Gen. Jim Simmons, briefing reporters after a spate of helicopter crashes blamed on hostile fire, said pilots were dealing with a "knowledgeable, thinking enemy" and that investigators were looking into the possibility that two recent helicopter shoot-downs were the work of the same group.

At least five U.S. helicopters have crashed since Jan. 20, and witnesses north of Baghdad, in Taji, said they had seen another helicopter go down Sunday. Military officials in the capital said they had no reports of the incident, which, if confirmed, would be the third helicopter crash in 10 days.

Also Sunday, a suicide bomber crashed a dump truck into a police station in the Sunni town of Ad Dawr, north of Baghdad. Local officials said at least 31 people died, but a U.S. military statement said nine people, all Iraqi policemen, were killed.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki pledged that a new security plan, seen as a last-ditch effort to end the bloodshed in his country, would accelerate this week with sweeps throughout Baghdad to capture insurgents and help Sunnis and Shiites displaced by sectarian violence return home.

Even as he spoke, police in Baghdad reported finding 27 corpses of men shot to death, apparent victims of Shiite-Sunni violence, and a Baghdad car bomb killed at least one person.

In Taji, the site of a major U.S. air base, witnesses said they saw a U.S. military helicopter flying low and unsteadily and trailing smoke before it dropped out of sight Sunday afternoon. Hassan Lihaybi, 25, the owner of a car wash in the area, said he went outside after hearing a loud noise.

"We ... saw an American chopper that was apparently hit because I saw a trail of smoke," he said.

Other witnesses said they heard a loud boom and that U.S. forces closed off the area where they had seen the helicopter flying.

On Feb. 7, a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in the same mainly Sunni area, killing all seven U.S. troops on board. Islamic State in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda, claimed to have shot that helicopter down, but U.S. military officials say they have not ruled out mechanical failure.

The same group claimed responsibility for the four other helicopter crashes in recent weeks. U.S. officials have acknowledged that enemy fire brought down all those copters, which included a civilian one owned by the private security firm Blackwater USA.

Simmons said investigators suspected that at least two of the recent shoot-downs, on Jan. 20 and Feb. 2, were linked because in both cases multiple firearms were used in the attacks and roads leading to the crash sites were lined with explosives to deter rescuers. Fourteen troops died in those incidents.

Though there is no indication attackers are using more advanced weaponry to hit helicopters, Simmons said the strikes showed they were closely watching U.S. strategies and adapting their methods to increase the chances of deadly hits.

"We are engaged with a thinking enemy. This enemy understands we're in the process of instituting new plans," he said, a reference to increased helicopter usage.

Because of roadside ambushes, U.S. helicopter usage in Iraq rose from 240,000 flying hours in 2005 to 334,000 in 2006, Simmons said. This year, pilots are expected to fly more than 400,000 hours.

Army pilots alone are involved in about 100 incidents per month of enemy fire, with about 17 resulting in direct hits on aircraft, Simmons said. Since the war began, he said, the Army has lost 29 helicopters, all to enemy fire. He did not have figures for the other branches of the military.

Despite the clear danger, he said, there were no plans to scale back flights.

"It's the safest way I know to get around here," Simmons said.

At least 3,123 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org. The U.S. military says most have died as a result of roadside bombs.

The latest death occurred Sunday when soldiers on patrol in west Baghdad were ambushed, the military said in a brief statement.

Witnesses to the car bombing at the police station in Ad Dawr said the explosives were hidden beneath hay piled in the bed of a pickup truck. The blast damaged a hospital, a post office, two schools and other buildings near the station.

The attack occurred shortly after 9 a.m., as Iraqi police were gathering for work, and left the street littered with shrapnel and body parts, one witness said.

Police stations have been frequent targets of insurgents seeking to undermine Maliki's government.

*

susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman and special correspondents in Baghdad, Tikrit, Taji and Samarra contributed to this report.

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