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US Air Force jet crashes, no word on pilot; Gates visits Iraq

BAGHDAD -- A US Air Force F-16 fighter jet crashed yesterday during a close air support mission for ground forces -- a rare loss in Iraq of the workhorse aircraft. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Baghdad on an unannounced visit, and the US military said five soldiers had died.

An Air Force announcement, which referred to the 12:27 a.m. crash of the F-16 as an accident, did not say where it occurred or what happened to the pilot, the sole crew member. It said the military was investigating the cause of the crash.

The Ohio National Guard said the pilot, who was not identified, was a member of the 180th Fighter Wing based in Toledo. About 270 of the unit's 1,000 members were deployed to Iraq last month. The jet was operating under the 332d Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The loss of an F-16 is an uncommon event. One crashed Nov. 27 in the western province of Anbar, killing the pilot.

Speaking to reporters on the flight to Baghdad, Gates said the military is not trying to paint an overly optimistic picture of how the war is going.

"It's a very mixed picture," he said when asked whether the military and commanding General David Petraeus were offering realistic assessments of the violence in Baghdad. Since Feb. 14, the military has sent nearly 30,000 more soldiers to Iraq, most of them to Baghdad.

"I have every confidence in General Petraeus and in his ability and willingness to call it as he sees it," Gates said.

Three of the US soldiers, whose deaths were reported yesterday by the military, died when a bomb exploded near their vehicle Thursday during operations in Kirkuk Province, in northern Iraq. Another soldier was wounded in the blast.

A fourth soldier was killed by small-arms fire the same day in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. And another soldier died Wednesday in a non-combat related event.

All were assigned to Task Force Lightning, and their names were withheld until families could be notified.

In the deep south of Iraq, police said bombers posing as television cameramen destroyed an important Sunni shrine near Basra, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an indefinite curfew in the city, the second-largest in Iraq.

The attack on the Talha Bin al-Zubair shrine, 13 miles outside Basra, appeared to be the work of Shi'ite militants who were seeking revenge for Wednesday's provocative attack on the al-Askariya Shi'ite shrine that brought down its golden minarets in Samarra, 50 miles north of the capital.

In February 2006, suspected Al Qaeda bombers blew up the Askariya mosque's glistening golden dome. That attack set in motion the sectarian slaughter that has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

To prevent such extensive violence from happening again, Maliki extended a vehicle ban in Baghdad for one more day, keeping the capital relatively quiet. There were 16 reported violent deaths nationwide yesterday, one of them a body dumped in Baghdad. Daily totals of death squad victims in Baghdad have been running well above 20.

Photographs of the shrine near Basra showed that the big structure was leveled, a result that would have required huge amounts of explosives -- more than several men could have carried into the mosque concealed in television equipment bags. Militants had first hit the Zubair shrine with rocket-propelled grenades Thursday night.

According to General Ali al-Mussawi, a top Basra security official, a group of men posing as television cameramen went to the mosque yesterday morning and asked guards if they could film inside the shrine. They instead planted bombs inside the structure and demolished it, he said. There were no reported casualties.

Maliki's office issued a statement that called the bombing of the Sunni shrine another of the "crimes aimed at sowing sedition and inflaming sectarian strife among the people."

In Tehran, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused US-led forces in Iraq of plotting and extremist Sunni groups of carrying out Wednesday's attack on the shrine in Samarra, saying it was designed to provoke civil war.