BAGHDAD -- The US command has ordered changes in flight operations after four helicopters were shot down in the last two weeks, the chief military spokesman said yesterday, acknowledging for the first time that the aircraft were lost to hostile fire.
The crashes, which began Jan. 20, follow insurgent claims that they have received new stocks of anti aircraft weapons -- and a recent boast by Sunni militants that "God has granted new ways" to threaten US aircraft.
All four helicopters were shot down during a recent increase in violence, which an Interior Ministry official said has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in the past week alone. At least 103 people were killed or found dead yesterday, most of them in Baghdad, police reported.
Major General William Caldwell said the investigations into the crashes of three Army and one private helicopters were incomplete, but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."
It was the first time a senior figure in the US Iraq command had said publicly that all four helicopters were shot down.
Despite the losses, Caldwell said it was premature to conclude that the threat to US aircraft posed by Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militiamen had increased dramatically.
"There's been an ongoing effort since we've been here to target our helicopters," Caldwell said. "Based on what we have seen, we're already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures as to how we employ our helicopters."
Caldwell did not elaborate, presumably for security reasons. In the past, defensive measures have included flying lower and faster, varying routes and using zigzag patterns over dangerous areas.
Three copters crashed in mostly Sunni areas and the fourth was shot down during fighting with Shi'ite cultists near Najaf. US officials have accused Iran of providing sophisticated weapons to Shi'ite militants.
In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's ousted Ba'ath Party, Khudair al-Murshidi, said in Damascus that Sunni insurgents had received shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and "we are going to surprise them," meaning US forces.
Murshidi did not say when or how the missiles were obtained.
Insurgents have used SA-7s, a shoulder-fired missile with an infrared homing device, against US and British aircraft since 2003.
In an Internet statement, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the latest crash -- an
"We tell the enemies of God that the airspace of the Islamic State in Iraq is prohibited to your aircraft just like its lands are," the statement said. "God has granted new ways for the soldiers of the State of Iraq to confront your aircraft."
It was unclear whether the "new ways" referred to new and advanced antiaircraft weapons, such as SA-18 missiles, or was simply a boast.
US military helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors and devices to jam radar and infrared technology, but they have proved vulnerable to intense gunfire, as well as rocket-propelled grenades.
The crashes have occurred in the run-up to the new US-Iraqi security crackdown, in which an additional 21,500 American troops and about 8,000 Iraqi soldiers are being sent mostly to Baghdad in another bid to quell sectarian violence.
Iraqi Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar, a Shi'ite named to lead the crackdown, will take charge today, and the operation will begin "very soon thereafter," US adviser Colonel Douglass Heckman said.
Yesterday, an Interior Ministry official said about 1,000 Iraqis -- including civilians, security forces, and gunmen -- had been killed in the last week alone. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figures.
Tallies by the AP using police and government statements put the death toll from Jan. 28 until Saturday at 911.
That included 137 people killed Saturday in a massive truck bombing in the mostly Shi'ite Sadriyah market in central Baghdad. The explosion was the fifth major bombing in less than a month against Shi'ite targets in Baghdad and Hillah.
It was also the deadliest in the capital since a string of car bombs and mortars killed at least 215 people in the Shi'ite district of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
Public anger over the attack welled up during a meeting yesterday between a delegation of Sadriyah residents and Iraqi Parliament members. The head of the delegation, Talib Nawrouz, demanded that the government implement the new security plan quickly to end the bloodshed.
"We demand the government start the new security plan, implement the counterterrorism law, and support the families," he added.