Copter Crashes Suggest Shift in Iraqi Tactics

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and JAMES GLANZ

New York Times

february 7, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 — With two more helicopter crashes near Baghdad, including a Marine transport crash on Wednesday that killed seven people, the number of helicopters that have gone down in Iraq over the past three weeks rose to six. American officials say the streak strongly suggests that insurgents have adapted their tactics and are now putting more effort into shooting down the aircraft.

The number also includes a previously unreported downing of a helicopter operated by a private security firm on Jan. 31.

Some aspects of the recent crashes indicate that insurgents have become smarter about anticipating American flight patterns and finding ways to use old weapons to down helicopters, according to military and witness reports. The aircraft, many of which are equipped with sophisticated antimissile technology, still can be vulnerable to more conventional weapons fired from the ground.

Details about the Marine helicopter, a CH-46 Sea Knight transport that crashed into an open field in an insurgent-heavy region northwest of Baghdad, were still sketchy Wednesday night. Witnesses said the aircraft appeared to have been shot down, but some military officials suggested that the crash might have been caused by a mechanical failure.

The private security helicopter shot down last week was being flown in support of State Department operations and was forced down 10 miles south of the capital after insurgents attacked it with heavy-caliber ground fire as it flew from Hilla to Baghdad, American officials said Wednesday. Another American helicopter quickly swooped in to rescue the passengers and crew.

There have been four other fatal downings of American helicopters since mid-January that killed at least 20 people and that military officials have suggested were all caused by small-arms fire. In some cases, however, witnesses indicated that missiles had been fired from the ground.

American officials emphasize that a new sense of coordinated aggressiveness on the part of insurgents toward attacking aircraft, or even luck, may be playing as large a role in the high pace of crashes as improved skill and tactics among insurgents.

“I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us,” said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Senate testimony on Tuesday. Another possibility, he said, was that there had “been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy.”

Among the troops, helicopters are still seen as a less vulnerable way to travel than the ground convoys that are commonly subject to roadside bombs that can tear through thick vehicular armor.

Historically, improved tactics in shooting down helicopters have proved to be important factors in conflicts in which guerrillas have achieved victories against major powers, including battles in Somalia, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

A senior military official in Washington said Wednesday that, while the episodes were still under investigation, the rash of helicopter shoot-downs appeared to be part of an insurgent strategy to inflict heavier losses on American forces at the start of the new push to secure Baghdad.

“There is certainly the expectation here that insurgents are trying to inflict some losses as we’re building up forces as a means to try to discourage the Iraqis and us that this is a futile plan,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several officials said it was unclear whether the attacks had succeeded because insurgents had adopted new tactics, but judging only by the number of successful attacks, it appeared to be part of a coordinated effort.

Part of the explanation, one official said, may be that fighters are simply firing at low-flying American helicopters. In recent years, there has been relatively little small-arms fire against helicopters, the official said.

One Air Force commander in Baghdad said the recent crashes appeared largely to be a result of old weapons long available in Iraq and not an influx of new hardware or technology. “I haven’t seen anything like that,” the American commander said.

The Sea Knight, the aircraft that crashed Wednesday, is a large transport helicopter that is easily distinguished by its twin rotors, one mounted near the cockpit and one mounted on a tall tail at the back. It can carry more than two dozen passengers and crew members. The military said all seven people on board died in the crash but did not identify the victims.

Video of the aftermath broadcast by the BBC showed bright red flames and thick black smoke billowing from the burning hulk of the helicopter as the wreckage lay in an open field.

Witnesses said the helicopter appeared to have been attacked from the ground.

“I looked at the sky and saw this big helicopter with double rotors and it was hit in its tail and burning,” said one Iraqi who declined to give his name but said he saw the crash while tending to his herd of grazing sheep near Karma, an area heavy with Sunni Arab insurgents between Baghdad and Falluja.

Another helicopter, with one rotor, was flying just behind the burning aircraft, he said. The twin-rotor helicopter flew for another half mile or so before crashing, he said. “I saw a lot of airplanes after the crash, and I took my herd and left,” he said. “I was afraid there would be shooting after that.”

An Internet message from an insurgent group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for shooting down the helicopter, the latest in a string of crashes that the group has claimed responsibility for. The message said that the group’s “antiaircraft” battalion downed the aircraft about 10:40 a.m. near Karma, and asserted that the crash was witnessed by hundreds of onlookers shouting “God is great,” according to the SITE Institute, which tracks Internet postings by insurgent groups.

American military officials emphasized that the investigation into the crash was scrutinizing a possible mechanical failure along with other potential causes.

Two American officials said the previously unreported downing of the private helicopter supporting State Department operations last week came after it was subjected to a hail of gunfire from the ground. One official described the gunfire as heavy caliber and said that after the helicopter crash-landed a second aircraft set down and evacuated the stranded passengers and crew.

But the official said that as a quick reaction force rushed to the crash scene, the force was struck by at least one large roadside bomb and suffered several casualties. The force withdrew from the site, and American officials decided to destroy the aircraft rather than risk it falling into insurgent hands.

Before the most recent crashes, at least 57 American military helicopters have crashed or been shot down since May 2003, according to a tally by the Brookings Institution. The highest total for any single month was five aircraft lost in January 2004. The overall tally since 2003 showed that at least 172 American service members had died in helicopter crashes, or about 5.5 percent of the total American troop fatalities.

On Jan. 20, in the deadliest recent crash, attackers appear to have fired from a pickup truck near Baghdad. The first of two Black Hawk helicopters passed over the truck and saw nothing amiss. But a witness said that the second helicopter fired the flares that were used to confuse heat-seeking missiles before bursting into flames and then crashing.

An Apache gunship in the area then pursued the truck and destroyed it. The American military later said that the debris from the truck contained tubes consistent with missile launchers.

Reporting was contributed by David S. Cloud from Washington, and Ali Adeeb, Qais Mizher and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Baghdad.