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US copter shot down; 16 die

Missile strike in Iraq injures 20 US soldiers

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Sixteen American soldiers were killed and 20 seriously wounded when a US Chinook helicopter was shot down and crashed into a field here in the deadliest single strike against US troops since the start of the war.

Witnesses in Hasi, a rural village outside Fallujah, 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital, said insurgents hiding in a grove of date palms fired two missiles at the low-flying, 10-ton chopper as it swept over the lush Euphrates River plain, ferrying troops from Fallujah to Baghdad airport, where they were to be flown out for leave.

In separate attacks, three other Americans were killed in two roadside bombings. A First Armored Division soldier was killed in Baghdad, and two civilians working for the US Army Corps of Engineers were killed in Fallujah.

An emboldened insurgency has carried out an eight-day onslaught of increasingly sophisticated and audacious missile attacks, suicide bombings, and roadside ambushes that have killed 27 American soldiers and 35 Iraqis, including police and civilians.

A dramatically deteriorating security situation in Baghdad and the escalation of attacks has cast a long shadow over Washington's sunny assessment of postwar Iraq.

"Clearly it is a tragic day for Americans," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday in Washington. "In a long, hard war we are going to have tragic days."

The US military confirmed that the hulking troop transport helicopter, a workhorse of the American military since the Vietnam war, had been shot down shortly after 9 a.m. and the pilot of a second helicopter that had been flying in tandem had seen a vapor trail of a rocket.

The killed and wounded were evacuated by US forces to a combat support hospital in Balad, north of Baghdad.

When evacuations were still underway at least two hours after the chopper came down, US soldiers fired warning shots to keep villagers and the media away from the crash site and seized footage from several cameramen.

At dusk, near where the chopper went down in Hassi -- a few miles south of the town of Fallujah, which has become a hotbed of resistance to the US presence in Iraq -- about 75 residents celebrated, some chanting, "Saddam, Saddam, we will redeem you!"

As the sun set over the fields, US troops were still inspecting the crash site even as villagers foraged for charred, twisted metal shards of the smashed helicopter that were littered across adjacent fields.

Ahmed Abdullah, 21, handed a splintered and shredded chunk of the wreckage to a Globe reporter and said, "This is a gift for your American military from the people of Fallujah."

Barak Bandar, 12, cradled a pile of small, green pieces of the destroyed chopper in his arms and said, "I'm going to save them so we can always remember this day, the day we showed America is nothing."

Abu Mustafa, 38, who smiled as he viewed the wreckage from a 1950s motorcycle with a side car where his 10-year-old son was sitting looking up at him, said, "It is beautiful. America came to occupy our country and we have a right to defend our homeland."

Two witnesses at the scene, who declined to give their names, said they saw a flash and then two missiles streaking toward the helicopter, hitting it from behind.

US military officials in Baghdad said the witness accounts, including one by the pilot of the helicopter flying alongside the stricken chopper, raised the possibility that the attackers may have been using a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile such as the Russian-made SA-7.

The Iraqi Army had a large inventory of SA-7 missiles that US and Iraqi officials say were looted during the chaotic aftermath of the war. US officials said yesterday they were still investigating what was used to down the Chinook. Earlier in the day in Fallujah, a roadside bomb hit a convoy of US personnel traveling in civilian vehicles.

At least one vehicle was ablaze at the scene, surrounded by crowds shouting anti-US slogans. One youth held up a US Army helmet that appeared to have a bullet hole and put it on his head while others danced around him.

It was the third time the insurgency -- an amalgam of loyalists to Saddam Hussein's toppled regime, former Iraqi soldiers souring on the lingering US occupation, and Islamic militants many of whom crossed into Iraq from neighboring countries -- had downed a US helicopter since President Bush declared on May 1 that major combat operations in Iraq had ceased.

In the two earlier attacks, neither of which involved a surface-to-air missile, only one US soldier was injured.

The past week marked the bloodiest in Baghdad since the fall of the capital to the US-led coalition, leaving the city on edge and stunning the coalition with one brazen blow after another.

It began last Sunday with a volley of rockets fired at a heavily fortified hotel -- a symbol of American power here where top US officials and American contractors were housed -- killing a US soldier and striking just one floor below where Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying during a three-day tour.

And last Monday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a coordinated spate of four suicide bombings within 45 minutes struck the headquarters of the Red Cross and three police stations, killing nearly 40 people and wounding 200. Daily attacks against US forces have increased in the past three weeks from an average in the mid-20s to 33, US military officials said.

Amid the escalating attacks, the opposition declared Saturday a "Day of Resistance" and vowed to continue the onslaught, although the day was relatively quiet in Baghdad.

The death toll yesterday surpassed what is considered the deadliest single attack during the Iraq war: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine wounded and seven captured, including Private Jessica Lynch. A total of 28 Americans died that day in Iraq in fighting around the country.

Yesterday's downed helicopter came from the Army's 12th Aviation Brigade, which has been providing air support to the 82d Airborne Division in the area of Fallujah.

In some of the starkest images to date of the bloody cost of occupying Iraq, ABC News yesterday aired footage of the military's combat support hospital, where doctors and nurses worked feverishly on severely wounded soldiers rushed from the crash.

With bandaged and bloodied soldiers groaning in pain in the background and medics comforting the wounded, one tired doctor in green scrubs made a cynical reference to Bush's declaration on May 1, saying, "All major combat operations have ceased. Right."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Charles M. Sennott can be reached at sennott@globe.com.

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