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In the deadliest single attack on the United States army since it invaded Iraq, guerrillas shot down a Chinook helicopter with a missile yesterday killing 15 and wounding 21 American servicemen. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, called the incident a national tragedy for Americans.
The Chinook, which came down in a field near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, was one of two 84-foot long transport helicopters attacked shortly after they took off from Habbaniyah air base at about 9am yesterday on a routine flight. They were ferrying more than 50 soldiers on a rest break from the 82nd Airborne Division to a military base at Baghdad International airport. As the helicopters passed over the village of Buisa, set in rich farmland filled with cattle and crops, guerrillas hidden in a date grove fired two shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, probably from a Russian heat-seeking SA-7 known as the Strella. There are many of them in Iraq and they were formerly used by the Iraqi army.
Daoud Suleiman, a farmer working among the date palms said: “I saw two helicopters pass overhead when two missiles were fired at them. One missed and the other hit a helicopter at the rear end and flames starting coming out of it before it crashed into a field. I saw the helicopter try to stay in the air after it was hit but then it got close to the ground and I saw some soldiers jump out.”
He said the helicopter that was not hit fired a flare to divert the missile. Minutes after the attack, American Black Hawk helicopters swarmed over the scene to rush survivors to hospital while soldiers secured the site, ordering journalists to leave and confiscating film.
Villagers and local farmers showed their delight by waving pieces of the smoking wreckage. The bloodiest single incident for American forces since the beginning of the war, and the worst day of casualties since the official end of the combat phase of the war as declared by President George Bush six months ago, eclipsed efforts by the White House to counter the impression that Iraq is becoming a quagmire for America. “Clearly it is a tragic day,” Mr Rumsfeld said.
Yesterday’s attack capped an eight-day surge in violence in which 27 American soldiers have died. Fallujah, a market town on the road to Jordan, is in the Sunni Muslim heartland, an area in which there have been more attacks on troops than anywhere else in Iraq. “Fallujah will always be a cemetery for the Americans,” reads a slogan on a wall in the main street not far from the mayor’s office, part of which was set on fire over the weekend.
In a separate action by guerrillas in Fallujah yesterday, two American civilian contractors died. The remains of their truck, which had been blown up by a rocket or bomb, could be seen near a bridge over the Euphrates. Eye witnesses said that they saw four armed Americans inside being taken away on stretchers. And a soldier was also killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Mr Rumsfeld said: “In a long hard war, we are going to have tragic days. But they are necessary. They are part of a war that is difficult and complicated.” He insisted that the US would not be deterred and would win the war in Iraq.
But yesterday’s attack presents the American forces with an immediate security crisis. They are heavily dependent on road transport and helicopters. If Strellas start to be used regularly by guerrillas–and American officials have warned that there are plenty unaccounted for–this will force helicopters to fly higher and thus become less effective. American vehicles have already proved vulnerable to roadside bombs, which have accounted for many of the soldiers killed and wounded. A military helicopter was also brought down by an rocket-propelled grenade near Tikrit last week.
Mr Rumsfeld said that he saw no need to raise the number of troops, now at about 130,000, which has come down from 150,000. But the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and Senator Joseph Biden, the panel’s top Democrat, said the number might have to be increased.