FALLUJAH, Iraq—Insurgents apparently shot down a U.S. military helicopter Thursday, killing all nine soldiers on board and strewing debris across farmland near the central Iraqi town of Fallujah, southwest of Baghdad.
It was the deadliest attack on American soldiers since Nov. 2, when insurgents downed a Chinook helicopter, killing 16 soldiers, also near Fallujah. It came one day after a mortar attack near the Baghdad airport killed one U.S. soldier and injured 30.
In a separate incident, a U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo plane carrying 63 passengers and crew was struck by ground fire shortly after it took off from Baghdad International Airport around 6:20 a.m. The plane returned to the airport and landed safely. No one was injured. Mark Voorhis, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., said it was unclear whether the plane had been struck by a missile or some other weapon.
Military officials provided little information on the downing of the helicopter, saying only that nine soldiers had died when a UH-60 Black Hawk went down at about 2:20 p.m. in southern Fallujah. A military spokesman said the helicopter was on a routine mission but didn't say what that mission was or identify the unit to which the helicopter or soldiers were assigned.
Four witnesses in the area reported seeing rockets fired at the aircraft, and they described how farmers cheered as they watched through binoculars as rescue workers pulled the dead from the helicopter.
"We saw rockets hit the tail of the helicopter and then it broke in two," said Omar Kanoun, 27, who had trudged through potato fields for a clear view of the crash site. "I gave my binoculars to my nephew, and we watched the Americans count the bodies."
Fallujah has been a particularly deadly area for insurgent attacks on U.S. helicopters. An OH-58 Kiowa helicopter was downed outside of the town on Jan. 2, killing one American soldier and wounding a second. On Dec. 9, a rocket-propelled grenade forced another Kiowa to make an emergency landing. While no one was injured in that incident, a month earlier 16 soldiers died when insurgents in the same area shot down the Chinook.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said the attacks wouldn't deter U.S. flights in the area.
"We have a responsibility to get from point A to point B, we have a responsibility to continue our combat operations, and those pilots don't stop. They look at the operational threat, they make conscious decisions about the risks they're taking, and they get back up in the air," he said.
The helicopter crash came during what is developing into a particularly violent week.
On Wednesday night, a U.S. soldier was killed and 30 others wounded in a mortar attack on the sleeping quarters of a military base about halfway between Baghdad and Fallujah. A Jordanian field hospital just outside Fallujah was hit Wednesday by a rocket attack that injured no one, but it left structural damage. Two French contractors were killed Monday night in a drive-by shooting when their car broke down on a road leading to Fallujah.
While no one was injured in the shooting of the C-5 cargo jet at the Baghdad airport, it was at least the second time insurgents succeeded in hitting an aircraft at the airport. On Nov. 22, a DHL cargo plane was forced to land after it was hit by a surface-to-air missile shortly after takeoff. The incident prompted coalition officials to suspend civilian flights out of the airport.
The hostility near Fallujah seems to challenge the assertions last week of Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who described the situation here as "a glide path toward success." Swannack was speaking of a reduction in the volume of attacks against soldiers. It's becoming increasingly clear, though, that the insurgency is sharpening its tactics to stage fewer, but more deadly, attacks.
Meanwhile, a much-touted release of Iraqis detained in U.S. sweeps against suspected insurgents apparently didn't begin Thursday as scheduled.
Dozens of Iraqis waited outside Abu Ghraib prison for at least 100 detainees who were scheduled for release under a coalition gesture to win over the likely supporters of such insurgents. As the hours went by with no word of a release, patience wore thin for the relatives camped outside prison gates.
"It's another lie," said Nouri Alaboudi, who arrived at dawn for news of a nephew arrested in a weapons raid three months ago. "We've been waiting here all day, and no one has left. I can't see my nephew, I can't find out anything about him. So we're just hoping."
U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer had announced the release Wednesday, but on Thursday, a senior coalition spokesman, Dan Senor, confirmed in a roundabout way that no prisoners had been released. Under the program, each detainee will be released to a tribal leader or cleric who will guarantee his behavior.
A large group of detainees seen leaving Abu Ghraib in trucks wasn't necessarily part of the amnesty, Senor said. He added that the release might take a couple more days.
"They are ready," Senor said. Their release "is conditional upon commitments from the guarantors. We are in the process of contacting those guarantors, waiting for them to step forward."
Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi, an Iraqi Governing Council member, said U.S. officials better be sure about which detainees to release.
"If they're not criminals and they didn't attack the Iraqi people, there's nothing wrong with it," Muhammadawi said. "But if we discover that some of them are criminals, that would hurt the reputation of the coalition forces and the Governing Council."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown in Washington contributed to this report. Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040108 Fallujah crash, 20040108 Mortar Baghdad