FALLUJAH, Iraq—Guerrillas shot down a U.S. Army helicopter with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile on Sunday, killing 15 soldiers, wounding 21 and signaling a dangerous escalation in the battle between U.S. troops and violent opponents of the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Iraq.
Three other Americans also died on Sunday, making it the worst day for the United States in Iraq since March 23, when 28 Americans were killed. A 1st Armored Division soldier died after a roadside bomb struck him just after midnight Sunday in Baghdad, and two civilians working for the Army Corps of Engineers in Fallujah were killed by another improvised bomb.
Twenty-nine American soldiers have been killed in combat in the last eight days, bringing to 138 the number of U.S. troops who have died by hostile fire in Iraq since President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1.
Improvised explosives also destroyed a Humvee in Fallujah Sunday and damaged another vehicle in Abu Ghraib, also west of Baghdad, where local residents clashed with U.S. soldiers three days ago. A military spokesman said he had no information on casualties in those incidents.
But the downing of the CH-47, the Army's workhorse helicopter, suggested that the insurgents who fired the missile had at least rudimentary training in the use of anti-aircraft weapons and suggests that they're refining their tactics and seeking opportunities to kill larger numbers of Americans.
Guerrillas have fired more than two dozen shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles at coalition aircraft in recent months, but none had hit its target until now. A rocket-propelled grenade took down a Blackhawk helicopter last week near former dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, but it was widely considered a lucky shot, and no U.S. soldiers were killed.
The incident also brought to the fore a thorny new problem for the U.S.-led coalition. The military relies heavily on helicopters to shuttle a limited number of troops and equipment around the California-size country, and until now air transport has generally been considered safer than travel by road.
Military officials said the soldiers aboard the helicopter were part of the 82nd Airborne Division Task Force based in the western town of Ramadi. They were en route to Baghdad International Airport for two-week furloughs in the United States and elsewhere when their CH-47 Chinook was shot down in a farming district southwest of Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, in an area where attacks on U.S. soldiers have been frequent. Local residents who witnessed the incident said another missile narrowly missed a second Chinook, the Army's largest transport helicopter.
The aircraft was downed as it flew along a regular flight path between Ramadi and Baghdad International Airport, though a military spokesman said pilots routinely vary their routes over the area.
Afghan rebels took a terrible toll on Soviet helicopters with U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Western analysts believe that Iraq possessed more than 5,000 shoulder-fired SA-7 and SA-14 "Strela" surface-to-air missiles before the war. Though considerably less accurate than the Stinger, the SA-7s and SA-14s can shoot down aircraft at altitudes of up to 7,000 feet and 9,000 feet, respectively, and from more than two miles away.
Spc. Michael Carden, 22, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said two Chinooks assigned to the 12th Aviation Brigade were flying over an area called Aramiya around 9 a.m. when one of the helicopters was struck by a missile and crashed.
The 57 soldiers on board the two aircraft "were either going on mid-term leave, emergency leave or R & R (rest and recreation)" when one of the helicopters was hit, Carden said. The two aircraft were likely flying at altitudes of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, he said.
Ahmed Jassim, 31, was working in the fields outside his home when the attack took place.
"There were two missiles," said Jassim, a red-checkered kaffiyeh wrapped around his head. "They shot the back of one helicopter. I heard a heavy explosion. The fire reached the middle of the helicopter that was hit, and it fell immediately to the ground. It was totally destroyed. I saw many dead bodies."
The Chinook crashed in a field about 200 yards from Jassim's home. As many as 15 other helicopters arrived later and took away the wounded and the dead, Jassim said. The twisted and blackened wreckage of the downed aircraft lay scattered in almost unrecognizable heaps.
Soldiers demanded to see what was in a Knight Ridder photographer's camera, then erased all of the pictures the photographer, David Gilkey of the Detroit Free Press, had taken. Gilkey was able to save the photos he'd taken with a second camera.
Later, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who cordoned off the site politely asked other journalists to leave.
"It's pretty bad," said one soldier.
Curious farmers stood outside their mud brick homes as pairs of Kiowa scout helicopters and Apache attack helicopters swept in long lazy arcs over a land dotted with tilled fields, groves of date palms and cattle grazing alongside narrow irrigation canals overgrown with reeds.
Though Jassim claimed he never saw who fired the missile, he said he was "very happy at what happened" to the helicopter and the soldiers inside.
"This is the price they should pay for their presence here," he said.
"My prayers and sympathy go to the families and the loved ones of those that were killed and wounded," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday." "What it was is a bad day, a bad day, a tragic day for those people. In a war, there are going to be days like that."
At an 82nd Airborne's base on the other side of Fallujah, U.S. soldiers echoed that sentiment.
"It's the reality of war," said Carden, of Coleman, Ala. "It's the risk you take coming into the Army. You gotta expect this kind of thing."
"Today was pretty bad," said Private 1st Class Misty Scheirer, 23, of Knoxville, Tenn. "You feel bad, of course, but you kind of get used to it. Of course, it brings you down. It just makes it worse that they were almost out of here. (But) you can't let it affect your mission."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): KRT graphic, filename 20031102 Iraq copter, with a locator map and a side view of the CH-47 Chinook, are available. A second graphic on the SA-7/SA-9 portable anti-aircraft missile, filename 20031102 USIraq missile, also will be available.