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1 U.S. soldier killed when helicopter shot down

FALLUJAH, Iraq—A U.S. helicopter was shot down Friday in the turbulent city of Fallujah, killing one soldier and wounding another. And in Baghdad, hundreds gathered to protest a U.S.-led raid on a mosque that was believed to have been an insurgent hub.

The attack on the two-person OH-58 Kiowa from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was the third time in two months that enemy fire downed a U.S. helicopter in the area. Military officials said they aren't certain what weapons were used in the latest attack.

Kassim Abbas, who runs a propane station just outside of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, said he saw a missile launch from a grove of palm trees. It slammed into the helicopter, he said, splitting it into three pieces. A piece of debris landed in a field he owns.

The helicopter was hovering low at about noon as troops on the ground cleared a mine from the road, Abbas said. The Kiowa, joined by a second helicopter, was circling the area, apparently to provide security for the soldiers below.

Fallujah has been one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, an area northwest of Baghdad where many American forces have been attacked. The majority of people in the area are Sunni Muslims, the same sect of Islam in which Saddam Hussein belongs.

A month earlier, 16 U.S. soldiers died when insurgents near Fallujah shot down a Chinook helicopter. On Dec. 9, a rocket-propelled grenade forced a Kiowa to make an emergency landing.

On Friday, U.S. troops blocking roads leading to the crash scene came under fire from five insurgents who were posing as journalists in jackets marked "press" in English, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. No soldiers were injured in the attack. Other troops in the neighborhood were ordered to round up Iraqis, including women, for questioning, according to conversations among officers on the soldiers' radios.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, hundreds demonstrated after Friday prayers at the Umm al Tabul mosque, chanting anti-American slogans and calling for militants to "attack the invaders" at every opportunity.

The protest followed a five-hour raid Thursday morning in which U.S. troops uncovered dynamite, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a trainer for surface-to-air missiles and other weapons and ammunition, Kimmitt said.

"This mosque was clearly being used for more than free religious expression," he said.

Thirty-two people, including some believed to be foreigners, were arrested on suspicion of "criminal and terrorist activities."

Kimmitt denied mosque officials' claims that troops broke down doors, ripped pages from Qurans and harassed women attending a prayer circle. "Despite the clear use of this mosque for criminal, terrorist and anticoalition activities, the greatest care was taken by coalition forces to uphold the sanctity of the mosque and to use the minimal amount of force necessary to conduct the operation," he said.

Protesters stood by the mosque officials' claims.

"How can they enter a house of God this way?" said Abdu Ahmed Jassem, 40. "I'm ready to stand in front of their tanks to prevent this from happening to any other mosque, even if it means losing my life."

Outside the mosque, which is popular with conservative Sunni Muslims, young men waved their fists and implored leaders to authorize jihad, or a holy struggle, against American forces. A group of men surrounded a Knight Ridder reporter there, and one of them said, in Arabic: "I will go to paradise if I kill him."

Imams, or religious leaders, from several nearby mosques said they "ask God to destroy America in Iraq" and called for the U.S.-led coalition to release the detainees.

"They stepped on our Qurans with their feet, but we are still Muslims and we are still ready to sacrifice our blood for our religion," one imam shouted into a loudspeaker.

Other violence erupted in the Sunni Triangle on Friday when a military convoy was ambushed at about 10:45 a.m. in Ramadi, which borders Fallujah. One vehicle struck a roadside bomb and, as the convoy stopped, insurgents fired small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade, setting an oil tanker ablaze. Three soldiers were wounded in the attack.

A day earlier, northwest of the area, U.S. forces arrested Abu Mohammed, who's suspected of moving foreign fighters and large sums of cash through the area. He was captured just 200 yards from the Syrian border, which many U.S. officials believe is a passage point for militant Islamists entering Iraq.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Navy seized a small boat near the Persian Gulf, found 2,800 pounds of hashish with an estimated street value of $11 million and detained 15 people, the Navy announced Friday.

Authorities believe drug money is supporting the al-Qaida terrorist network. It was the fourth drug boat that coalition forces have seized in or near the gulf in the past two weeks.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

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