At least 27 U.S. troops killed in Iraq over weekend

By Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times

January 21, 2007

BAGHDAD — At least 27 U.S. troops were killed in a helicopter crash and insurgent attacks across Iraq over the weekend in one of the deadliest stretches for the American military here in nearly two years.

The surge in fatalities comes just days before President Bush's State of the Union address , which is likely to inject a note of urgency into the debate over his Iraq policy.

The weekend's deadliest episode was the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter northeast of Baghdad on Saturday afternoon, killing all 12 U.S. soldiers aboard. The military initially had said 13 were killed but revised it to 12 early today.

South of the capital in the Shiite Muslim city of Karbala, men armed with grenades, mortars and assault rifles swarmed a provincial security building manned by U.S. and Iraqi forces, the military said. At least five U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded.

Today, the U.S. military reported the deaths of five more troops, four soldiers and a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 in Anbar province.

Five more U.S. troops and at least 59 Iraqis were also reported killed or found dead Saturday and today in politically motivated violence as Iraqi and American forces stepped up an effort to target Shiite militiamen and Sunni Arab insurgents.

A British soldier was also killed today when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle in Basra. Four British soldiers were also injured in the blast.

U.S. military officials said the cause of Saturday's helicopter crash had yet to be determined, but Iraqi sources said it was shot down. A witness said he saw ground fire bring down the aircraft, and an insurgent group claimed responsibility for the attack in an Internet posting that could not be authenticated.

Iraqi officials and witnesses said the crash took place near the town of Buhriz in the region of Tarefiya, a rural Sunni enclave of canals and wheat fields about six miles south of Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province. The area is known as an insurgent stronghold. A recent joint U.S.-Iraqi military offensive focused on Diyala.

A message posted on the Web by the Mujahedin Army, an insurgent group that operates out of Baghdad and Diyala provinces, claimed responsibility for the attack.

"The helicopter was downed by [an] antiaircraft [rocket] that belongs to the Mujahedin Army in Buhriz," said the statement, posted to a Web site where insurgent claims are frequently trumpeted.

An Iraqi witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the helicopter was felled by ground fire, but the U.S. military could not confirm the account. Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a military spokeswoman in Baghdad, said that the crash took place northeast of Baghdad about 3 p.m.

"All passengers and crew were military service members," she wrote in response to an e-mailed query, adding that more information was expected today. So far no additional information has been released. The military withheld names of the victims pending notification of family members.

Saturday's crash was the first since a U.S. Marine CH-53 transport chopper went down in an accident in Al Anbar province Dec. 11, killing one Marine.

Insurgents last shot down a helicopter on May 14, near the village of Yousifiya south of the capital; two soldiers died in that attack.

At least 25 soldiers were killed Saturday. The deadliest day for American service members in Iraq was Jan. 26, 2005, when 37 U.S. troops were killed, 31 of them in the accidental crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in Al Anbar.

The Karbala clash erupted as U.S. and Iraqi officials planned security for the Ashura festival, an annual Shiite pilgrimage. Karbala has come under the sway of Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, but it also is adjacent to Sunni areas. A statement released by the military Saturday did not clarify whether the attackers were suspected Sunni or Shiite gunmen.

Iraqi officials said the audacious attack began when a half-dozen vehicles filled with men wearing official-looking uniforms made their way past a checkpoint and burst into the provincial security building, guns blazing.

Americans view Sadr's movement as the country's biggest threat. Today lawmakers close to Sadr, the Shiite cleric, announced they were ending a largely symbolic boycott of the government.

The sharp rise in American military deaths comes as the U.S. intensifies its efforts to curb violence in Baghdad, with Pentagon planners and White House officials pushing forward with a plan to increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq by 21,500.

The first of the additional troops, the 3,200 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, have arrived in Baghdad and will be "fully operational" within two weeks, the U.S. military said today in a statement.

Their mission will be to help Iraqi security forces "clear, control and retain key areas" of Baghdad "to reduce violence and to set the conditions for a transition to full Iraqi control of security in the city," the military said.

Bush and other supporters of the plan say it is an essential move to give the Iraqi government breathing space to crack down on violent groups and heal political wounds.

Opponents, including Democratic Party leaders in Congress and some skeptical Republicans, consider it a risky escalation that could bolster anti-American sentiment in Iraq and across the Middle East, and lead to more U.S. casualties. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 3,047 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, according to icasualties.org.



daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mohammed Rasheed and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Hillah, Najaf and Kirkuk contributed to this report.