BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thirty-seven U.S. troops died in Iraq Wednesday, making it the deadliest day for the American military there since the war began nearly two years ago.
Most of the deaths—31—came in the crash of a transport helicopter, prompting President Bush, in a rare expression of dismay over events in Iraq, to predict that "the story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people."
But the president added that "it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom."
The cause of the 1:20 a.m. crash of the CH-53E Super Stallion wasn't immediately certain, though there was bad weather in the area and a second helicopter that was flying nearby reported no hostile fire. The crash took place near Rutbah, near a desert corner of Iraq that touches the Syrian and Jordanian borders and has been a crossing point for foreign fighters entering Iraq. Thirty Marines and one sailor died.
"We don't believe that there were any survivors . . . weather was bad. We don't know of any enemy action," Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, the division of the military that's responsible for the Middle East, said in Washington. "It was a routine mission in support of the elections. That's all I know. I think it's a dangerous environment that we operate in Iraq; we all understand that."
The helicopter crash toll alone topped the previous high figure for American deaths in Iraq—29 on March 23, 2003. But fighting claimed the lives of at least six others—four Marines in fighting in western Iraq, a 1st Infantry Division soldier in an insurgent attack north of Baghdad, and another U.S. solider killed by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad that blew up the fully armored Humvee he was in.
Bush addressed the helicopter at a new conference at the White House. "The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people," he said. "I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. And—but it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom. Otherwise, the Middle East will be—will continue to be a caldron of resentment and hate, a recruiting ground for those who have this vision of the world that is the exact opposite of ours."
Insurgents have brought down helicopters in the past. In November 2003, 17 American service members were killed in the northern town of Mosul when two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters crashed while trying to escape ground fire.
Saleh Sarhan, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said he didn't know the cause of the Rutbah crash but, speaking of the insurgency, said, "They are everywhere, so it is very easy for them to shoot down helicopters."
The U.S. military death count since the war started has reached 1,418, according to lunaville.org, a Web site that tracks coalition casualties in Iraq.
Gen. George W. Casey, the commanding general in Iraq, said in Baghdad that he thought bloodshed would continue during and after the elections. "I would expect to see a good part of it in the Baghdad area," he said.
Casey said the United States was committed to staying in Iraq until Iraqi security forces could stand against the insurgents.
"It's not the get-out-of-Dodge plan," he said. "It's ... sustain the Iraqis so the Iraqis can sustain this over the long haul."
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al Nakib, who oversees the Iraqi police, said Wednesday that all his offices were at their highest alert. His men will impose a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Friday and lasting through Monday, and only police and government officials will be allowed to have cars on the road. The borders will be closed for three days, and the Baghdad airport for at least two.
Two separate car bombers struck the main highway to the airport on Wednesday. The first came at about 10:25 a.m., wounding four soldiers. The second, about four hours later, wounded three more.
A group linked to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took responsibility for Wednesday's airport bombings, releasing a statement on the Internet that warned Iraqis to stay home on election day and said "the enemies of God will see that death is their destiny."
An Arab satellite-news channel, Al-Arabiya, showed a videotape of three Iraqis said to be election workers who'd been taken hostage. There were reports of attacks on Kurdish political-party offices near Mosul, with a car bomb that killed at least five and injured 20, and in the town of Baqouba, with machine-gun fire.
In Baiji, between Baghdad and Mosul, 11 school officials told their local electoral commission that they didn't want their buildings used as polling places.
Farid Ayar, an official with the national electoral commission, said that despite threats from insurgents, it wasn't the schools' decision. "They do not have the authority to refuse," he said.
Iraqis don't trust their security forces—which will form the inner cordon for the polls—to keep them safe, said Nabil Mohammed, a political scientist at Baghdad University.
"The fighters have the surprise element when they attack; they are the ones who choose the time, the place and the way, and that gives them a superiority in the field," he said. "Besides, the Iraqi police are not qualified and they do not have the ability to face the gunmen."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed Al Alwsy and Omar Jassim and correspondent Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050126 USIRAQ helicopter, 20050126 USIRAQ crash