U.S. Helicopter Goes Down Near Tikrit
TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) _ A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter was shot down Saturday by ground fire near Tikrit, a center of Iraq’s anti-U.S. insurgency, witnesses and U.S. soldiers said. At least one soldier was injured, U.S. military officials said.
The downing, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade, raised concerns that insurgents’ attacks on U.S. soldiers were getting more sophisticated even as they grow more frequent. The number of attacks on American troops in Iraq has been inching up to 26 a day recently.
Two helicopters were flying when witnesses heard a loud explosion and saw the second aircraft spinning out of control. It crashed in farmland about a mile away. U.S. soldiers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
It was the second time a U.S. helicopter has been downed by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1. The last copter to be shot down was in June.
The downed craft could later be seen engulfed in flames and lying amid brush in a field as a plume of thick black smoke rose into the sky. The second copter hovered overhead. An injured person was seen being removed from the site on a stretcher.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military command said the Black Hawk, from the 12th Aviation Brigade, crashed while supporting a combat patrol but gave no cause. The statement said that once it crash-landed, it was hit by RPG and small arms-fire.
However, witnesses about a mile away, including an Associated Press reporter, heard no explosions once the aircraft was down. The U.S. statement said one soldier was injured. An earlier statement put the injured figure at five.
A soldier who said he was among the first to reach the crash site said four people were aboard the aircraft. Three were evacuated away and one was taken to a clinic here for treatment, he said on condition of anonymity.
``A helicopter did go down,″ Capt. Jefferson Wolfe, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, said. ``We can confirm it. It was a Black Hawk. We are investigating.″
U.S. officials have been warning that thousands of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles remain unaccounted for after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and pose a threat to U.S. military aircraft. RPGs, also fired with a shoulder device, are a weapon frequently used by insurgents for ambushes on American forces.
Tikrit, the hometown of ousted leader Saddam Hussein, lies in the heart of the ``Sunni Triangle,″ the region of central Iraq north of Baghdad that has seen mutliple attacks every day against U.S. forces. The region is where Saddam drew his strongest support, and his loyalists are now believed to be leading resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.
Despite violence in Iraq, coalition authorities on Saturday announced plans to lift the curfew in Baghdad and reopen a major bridge in teh capital to ease conditions for Iraqis ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which likely begins Sunday.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, on a three-day tour of Iraq, was in Tikrit earlier Saturday visiting the main U.S. garrison there. He left the city hours before the helicopter was shot down and was in the northern city of Kirkuk, U.S. officials said.
On June 12, a U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter was shot down by hostile fire in western Iraq. The craft’s two crewmembers were rescued unhurt. In May, two helicopters crashed in accidents that killed eight servicemembers, including a Marine who drowned trying to save comrades whose chopper crashed into a canal.
Wolfowitz said he was hopeful that American troops would get more money to train Iraqis to assume a greater role in security as they fight resistance forces.
``These young Iraqis are stepping forward to fight for their country along with us,″ Wolfowitz told reporters at the garrison in Tikrit. ``It is a wonderful success story that speaks volumes.″
Separately, officials said Saturday that the coalition-backed police chief of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah was shot to death as he left a mosque after prayers.
Brig. Hamid Hadi Hassan al-Abe was leaving the al-Hussein mosque after Friday prayers when he was gunned down by assailants firing from several locations, police Maj. Kathim Mohsen Hamadi said.
The attackers escaped, Hamadi said. He added that al-Abe had a good relationship with British occupation authorities, who are responsible for the city, about 75 miles north of Basra.
Iraqis who work with the U.S.-led coalition have been targeted by insurgents, but Amarah is populated primarily by Shiite Muslims, who have been generally more accepting of the occupation because of their suffering under former Sunni-dominated regime.
``We can’t accuse anyone right now,″ Hamadi said. ``We face many problems here, mostly tribal problems.″
The city council in Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, said the curfew in the capital would be lifted at 4 a.m. Sunday ``due to the reduction in the crime rate in the city and the overall improvement in the security situation.″
The lifting of the curfew also was timed for the start of Ramadan, which may start Sunday. Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, begins with the sighting of a new moon and lasts for four weeks.
Last month, the coalition relaxed the start of the curfew by one hour. Since then, the curfew has started at midnight and ended at 4 a.m. Most Iraqi cities no longer have a curfew.
The announcements followed another day of violence.
A mortar attack killed two American soldiers and wounded four others Friday at an outpost north of Baghdad, and a third American died in a gunbattle in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military said. A total of 108 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since May 1.
In a videotape delivered to Associated Press Television News, a heretofore unknown group _ Ansar Saddam al-Jihadiya or Saddam’s Jihad Supporters _ claimed responsibility for attacks on Americans. The tape showed three men _ their faces covered _ holding a weapon and a picture of the ousted leader.
``Our organization, with the help of God, has carried out attacks on many American targets and a number of local traitors and agents,″ one of the three said. ``These operations will continue until the atheist army will leave Iraq.″
EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press correspondents Robert Reid in Baghdad and Tini Tran in Amarah contributed to this story.