A helicopter owned by the private security firm Blackwater USA crashed Tuesday in central Baghdad, and five civilians were killed, a U.S. military official said. A senior Iraqi defense official said the aircraft was shot down over a predominantly Sunni neighborhood.
The Iraqi official, who would not allow use of his name because the information had not been made public, said a gunman with a PKC machine gun downed the small helicopter of a private security firm Tuesday afternoon over the heavily Sunni Fadhil neighborhood in north-central Baghdad, where witnesses reported clashes between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces.
There were casualties, the official said, but would give no details.
In Washington, a U.S. military official said Blackwater representatives responded to the crash in central Baghdad, along with American military. The official, who demanded anonymity because the details have not been made public, said the cause of the crash was not known and that it was too early to tell if the crash was linked to the downing Saturday of a U.S. Army helicopter that killed a dozen U.S. troops.
The deaths of three more U.S. troops also were announced, including a Marine who killed Sunday south of Baghdad, raising the weekend death toll to 28 as American casualties mount ahead of a U.S.-Iraqi security push to try to secure the capital and on the eve of President Bush’s State of the Union address.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday, the military said _ one in fighting in Anbar province west of the capital and another in a roadside bombing.
Earlier, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said American officials were investigating reports that a civilian aircraft had crashed.
”We are in the process of determining the facts and checking on the welfare and status of those involved,” he told The Associated Press.
Witnesses reported clashes between gunmen and U.S. and Iraqi forces that lasted for several hours on Tuesday as helicopters flew low over the area where the helicopter was reportedly shot down. Police also said a car bomb struck a market in the district, killing at least three people and wounding 10.
Sunni insurgents are known to have surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades but have not been able to use them effectively because of U.S. military avoidance tactics.
A senior U.S. military official said Monday that there was evidence that the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed northeast of Baghdad on Saturday, killing all 12 U.S. soldiers on board, may have been shot down.
Searchers at the scene found a tube that could be part of a shoulder-fired weapon that may have been used to shoot down the aircraft, said the official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was still continuing.
A spokeswoman for Blackwater USA, which is based about 30 minutes south of Norfolk, Va., at a massive compound in far northeastern North Carolina, declined to comment Tuesday. The company provides security for State Department officials in Iraq, trains military units from around the world, and works for corporate clients.
”That just breaks my heart,” said Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston, a Blackwater employee who died in March 2004. ”I’m so sick of these kids dying.”
Helvenston was killed, along with Jerko ”Jerry” Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona, and Michael R. Teague, when a frenzied mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were escorting through Fallujah. The insurgents burned and mutilated the guards and strung two of the bodies from a bridge.
The gruesome scene was filmed and broadcast worldwide, leading the U.S. military to launch a three-week siege of Fallujah. According to insurance claims on file at the Department of Labor, 770 civilian contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, through December 31, 2006. The contractors include foreign workers.
Attacks targeting Shiites also persisted with bombs striking two separate areas in Baghdad on Tuesday, killing five people a day after a double car bombing tore through a market crowded with Shiites elsewhere in the capital in the bloodiest attack in two months. Among those killed in one of the car bombings was a woman and a 7-year-old boy, police said.
”Why are the insurgents detonating bombs near our houses every day? Everyday we have a blast, what have we done wrong? May Allah curse everybody who hurts the people,” an elderly woman shrouded in black said as she stood amid the wreckage.
U.S.-led forces also killed 16 suspected insurgents and detained 10 others Tuesday in the area surrounding Baghdad and Haditha, 140 miles northwest of the capital.
At least 45 other people were killed or found dead in the Baghdad area and in the northern city of Mosul, including 27 bullet-riddled bodies that turned up on the streets of the capital, apparent victims of Shiite death squads that have been behind much of the surge in violence since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
The attacks have battered Shiites during one of their holiest festivals and were the latest in a renewed campaign of Sunni insurgent violence before a U.S.-Iraqi push to secure Baghdad. The first of the 21,000 extra U.S. troops being sent to help quell the violence have started to arrive in Baghdad.
Insurgents also continued to target police in northern Iraq, with at least four officers killed during clashes throughout the northwest city of Mosul. Five insurgents also were killed and two detained in the fighting, police said.
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