Targeting Americans with new audacity, insurgents hiding in a date palm grove shot down a Chinook helicopter carrying dozens of soldiers heading for home leave Sunday, killing 16 and wounding 20 in the deadliest strike against U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq in March.
Witnesses said the attackers used missiles, a sign of the increasing sophistication of Iraq's elusive anti-U.S. fighters.
Three other Americans were killed in separate attacks Sunday, including a 1st Armored Division soldier in Baghdad and two U.S. civilians working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fallujah. All three were victims of roadside bombs, the military said.
Sunday's death toll was the highest for American troops since March 23, the first week of the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and the attack represented a major escalation in the campaign to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of the country.
The giant helicopter was ferrying the soldiers on their way for leave outside Iraq when two missiles streaked into the sky and slammed into the rear of the aircraft, witnesses told the Associated Press. It crashed in flames in farmers' fields west of Baghdad.
"It's clearly a tragic day for America," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days. But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."
As in past attacks on U.S. forces and a string of suicide bombings that killed dozens in Baghdad the past week, U.S. coalition officials blamed Hussein loyalists or foreign fighters for the strike outside Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance to the U.S. occupation.
President Bush, who was at his Texas ranch Sunday, declined to comment. He spent the day out of public view, a "down" day between campaign appearances Saturday and today.
L. Paul Bremer, head of the occupation in Iraq, repeated demands that Syria and Iran prevent fighters from crossing their borders into Iraq.
"They could do a much better job of helping us seal that border and keeping terrorists out of Iraq," he told CNN. The "enemies of freedom" in Iraq "are using more sophisticated techniques to attack our forces."
U.S. officials have been warning of the danger of shoulder-fired missiles, thousands of which are scattered from Hussein's arsenals, and such missiles are believed to have downed two U.S. copters since May 1. Those two crashes of smaller helicopters wounded one American.
The loaded-down Chinook was a dramatic new target. The insurgents have been steadily advancing in their weaponry, using homemade roadside bombs, then rocket-fired grenades in ambushes on American patrols and vehicles stuffed with explosives and detonated by suicide attackers.
In the fields south of Fallujah, some villagers proudly showed off blackened pieces of the Chinook's wreckage to arriving reporters.
Though a few villagers tried to help, many celebrated word of the helicopter downing and a fresh attack on U.S. soldiers in Fallujah. Two American civilians working under contract for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were killed and one was hurt in the explosion of a roadside bomb, the military said.
The downed copter was one of two Chinooks flying out in formation from an air base in Habbaniyah, about 10 miles from the crash site, carrying troops to Baghdad on route for rest and recreation. The other helicopter was not hit.
The missiles semed to have been fired from a palm grove about 500 yards away, said Thaer Ali, 21. At least one hit the Chinook, which came down in a field in the farming village of Hasai, a few miles south of Fallujah, witnesses said.
The missiles flashed toward the helicopter from the rear, as usual with heat-seeking ground-fired missiles. The most common model in the former Iraqi army inventory was the Russian-made SA-7, also known as a Strela, Russian for "arrow."
A U.S. military spokesman said the missile, which failed to explode or did not detonate fully, did not shoot the helicopter out of the air but severely damaged the engine system. The crippled engine limited the pilot's ability to control the craft, and when the pilot tried to make an emergency landing, the copter disintegrated on impact, the spokesman said.
The force of the impact destroyed the 10-ton Chinook, scattering twisted and charred bits of fuselage over a wide area. Everyone on board was killed or injured, many of them severely, military officials said. Several of the wounded suffered serious internal injuries and extensive burns. One witness said he saw a soldier whose legs were on fire crawling away from the crash site with his hands.
"It was a tremendous explosion," said Arif Jassim Hadi, a 30-year-old farmer standing along a dirt road near the crash site, which smoldered for hours.
Hours later, thick smoke rose from the blackened, smoldering hulk as U.S. soldiers swarmed over the crash site, evacuating the injured, retrieving evidence and cordoning off the area.
The U.S. military would not confirm the aircraft was struck by a missile, but Col. William Darley said witnesses reported seeing "missile trails."
In Baghdad, Darley said the CH-47 helicopter belonged to the 12th Aviation Brigade, a Germany-based unit that supports the 82nd Airborne Division Task Force operating west of Baghdad.
The two Chinooks were carrying more than 50 passengers to the U.S. base at Baghdad International Airport, from which they were to fly out on leave, U.S. officials said. Darley said some of the casualties were from medical units, but officials did not provide a breakdown of their units.
A spokesman at Fort Carson, Colo., said the Chinooks were carrying soldiers from Fort Carson; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Fort Hood, Texas.
The Pentagon said Friday it was expanding the rest and recreation leave program for troops in Iraq. As of Sunday, it said, the number of soldiers departing daily to the United States via a transit facility in neighboring Kuwait would be increased from 280 to 480.
The downing and the soldier's death in Baghdad brought to at least 139 the number of American soldiers killed by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to combat May 1. About 377 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq.
The death toll Sunday surpasses one of the deadliest attacks during the Iraq war: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Twenty-eight Americans died on that day, the deadliest for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, in Abu Ghraib on Baghdad's western edge, U.S. troops clashed with townspeople Sunday. Local Iraqis said U.S. troops arrived in the morning and ordered people to disperse from the marketplace. Someone then tossed a grenade at the Americans, who opened fire, witnesses said.
_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.
On Friday, insurgents attacked the mayor's office with rocket-propelled grenades, wounding two police officers.
On Thursday, an improvised bomb on a rail line exploded near the city. The train was looted.
On Tuesday, a pickup truck stuffed with explosives blew up near a police station, killing at least four people and injuring seven others.
On Oct. 25, three civilian contractors were killed and two wounded when their convoy came under fire near the city.
On Oct. 20, one U.S. paratrooper was killed and six were wounded when ambushers opened fire on their patrol.
On Oct. 19, attackers opened fire on a convoy that broke down in the city, setting off spectacular explosions from an ammunition truck.
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