37 U.S. Troops Killed in Deadliest Day of Iraq War;
1,418 Total Killed
JOHN F. BURNS,
New York Times
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 26 - Thirty marines and one sailor died today when a transport helicopter crashed in the desert in western Iraq, the United States military said today.
The death toll is the largest single loss of life for the American military in one incident since the Iraq war started 22 months ago. Combined with six combat-related deaths, today was the costliest day in the war in terms of loss of American troops.
In Washington, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the overall commander of American forces in the Middle East, said there were no survivors from the helicopter crash. The American military at Camp Falluja, Iraq, said in a statement that a recovery team was at the site of the crash and that its cause was under investigation.
General Abizaid said the weather was bad at the time, and that there were no signs yet of hostile fire. "It was not a special mission," he said. "It was a routine mission in support of the election."
Officials in Baghdad also said earlier that bad weather might have been a contributing factor. It was also possible, they said, that the craft hit a power line, what the military calls a wire strike.
Military officials said today's crash occurred over the town of Rutbah, a way station for American forces in Anbar Province, a third of the way between the Jordanian border and Ramadi, west 0f Baghdad in the so-called Black Desert.
Large troop movements have been stepped up as next Sunday's elections approach.
A Pentagon official said the incident today involved a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter transporting marines, The Associated Press reported.
Since a spate of incidents in late 2003, military helicopters have followed revised flight procedures. They now routinely fly at low altitudes - they are often seen flying just above the reeds on the Tigris River - and maintain a zigzag flight pattern to avoid ground fire. Those procedures have sharply decreased the number of incidents.
In Washington today, President Bush said he had been informed of the crash but declined to give any details, saying it was still being investigated. "Obviously, any time we lose lives it's a sad moment," he said.
Asked about polls that showed declining support among Americans for the war in Iraq, he said, "The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people."
"We value life," he said, "and we mourn when our soldiers lose their lives. But our long-term objective is to spread freedom."
He again stressed the importance of the elections proceeding as planned Sunday. Asked what level of turnout he would consider a success, Mr. Bush said, "The fact that they're voting is in itself a success."
The previous most deadly helicopter crashes in Iraq occurred in November 2003. In the first, a Chinook helicopter ferrying soldiers bound for vacation was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, leaving 16 soldiers dead. In the second, 18 soldiers died when two helicopters dodging insurgent fire from the ground collided over the northern city of Mosul.
A blast in a mess tent in Mosul late last year killed 18 Americans and 4 others; 14 of the Americans were members of the military.
Today's helicopter incident came on another day of scattered violence in Iraq.
Four marines were killed in Anbar Province while conducting combat operations against insurgent forces, the military said, while providing no further information.
A soldier with the Army's First Infantry Division was killed and two were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack by insurgents near the town of Duluiya, a statement from the military said.
And this afternoon a soldier with the Army's Baghdad task force was killed in the Iraqi capital when a homemade explosive device was detonated, the military said. Two other soldiers were injured in the attack.
The combined death toll from today's helicopter incident and the fighting with insurgents - a total of 37 killed - surpasses the highest previous American death toll for one day. That came on March 23, 2003, when 29 American troops were killed during the early days of the invasion of Iraq.
Today, two car bomb attacks on American military convoys took place on the road leading to the Baghdad International Airport, a frequent target of rebel strikes.
Four soldiers were wounded in the first attack, at about 10:25 a.m., the military said. A second car bomb wounded three soldiers on the same road at about 2:35 p.m. and an armored Humvee was damaged, the military said.
Five people, including three policemen, were killed when three car bombs went off in Riyadh, north of Baghdad, news agencies reported.
In Sadr City, a heavily populated Shiite area of eastern Baghdad, American and Iraqi forces arrested 19 suspected insurgents in a raid Tuesday night outside the Rasoul Mosque, the military said.
The area was the frequent site of heavy clashes last year between American forces and Moktada al-Sadr, a fiery Shiite cleric, until a peace agreement was reached after the intervention of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
John F. Burns reported from Baghdad for this article, and Terence Neilan from New York.