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31 killed in copter crash on deadliest day for U.S. military in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thirty-seven U.S. service members died in Iraq on Wednesday, making it the deadliest day for the American military since the war started. On March 23, 2003, 29 Americans were killed in Iraq.

Most of the deaths came when a transport helicopter, a CH-53E Super Stallion, went down near the western town of Rutbah, killing 30 Marines and a sailor.

The cause of the 1:20 a.m. crash wasn't immediately certain, though there was bad weather in the area. Rutbah, which is near a desert corner of Iraq that touches the Syrian and Jordanian borders, has been a smuggling point for foreign fighters in the past.

"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."

Marine officials said the cause of the crash was under investigation.

President Bush stressed that the men died promoting freedom.

"The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people," Bush said at the White House. "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."

Violence continued to spread across the country Wednesday as insurgents apparently ramped up their attempts to derail national elections scheduled for Sunday.

Four Marines lost their lives in fighting later Wednesday, also in western Iraq. Insurgents killed a 1st Infantry Division soldier, and wounded two more, when they attacked a military patrol with rocket-propelled grenades north of Baghdad.

In southwest Baghdad, another U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded when a powerful roadside bomb hit a fully armored Humvee, American officers said. Not far away, soldiers found and removed two other bombs, including one in a school that's scheduled to be used as a polling place Sunday.

Also in the capital, two separate car bombers struck the main highway to the airport. The first came at about 10:25 a.m., wounding four soldiers. The second, about four hours later, wounded three more.

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.

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."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed Al Alwsy and Omar Jassim and correspondent Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050126 USIRAQ helicopter, 20050126 USIRAQ crash

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