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Deadliest day for US in Iraq war

Copter crash kills 31; 6 more die in fighting

BAGHDAD -- A military helicopter crashed during a sandstorm in western Iraq yesterday, killing 30 US Marines and a sailor, while insurgents killed six more American troops in the single deadliest day for the United States since the war began nearly two years ago.

Insurgents also killed nearly two dozen Iraqis in a spate of bombings and other attacks against polling places four days before Iraq's first national election on Sunday.

The transport helicopter went about 220 miles west of Baghdad while conducting what the military called ''security and stabilization operations." The CH-53E Super Stallion crashed at 1:20 a.m. local time near Rutbah close to the Jordanian border, as personnel from the Third Marine Aircraft Wing were transporting members of the First Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton in California, according to a brief military statement. No survivors were found.

Officials said the crash was under investigation, but it appeared to have been caused by bad weather. The military said there were no signs of hostile fire. The fatalities from the crash and the day's clashes raised the US death toll to at least 1,409 since the American-led invasion in March 2003.

Before yesterday's deaths, the most Americans killed in one day were the 28 killed on March 23, 2003 during the US military's drive toward Baghdad.

President Bush expressed sympathy for the families of the dead, whose identities were not immediately released. However, he pledged not to be swayed by the mounting US death toll, growing violence, and a new warning from a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda calling on Iraqis to stay away from the polls.

He said Sunday's vote would be ''a grand moment in Iraqi history" and urged all Iraqis to ''defy these terrorists."

''The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people," Bush said in a White House press conference. ''I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. But it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom."

The crash of the heavy-lift helicopter, a model first used during the Vietnam War to ferry large numbers of combat troops and supplies, occurred as Iraq braced for more violence ahead of the election.

Four US Marines were killed in fighting in Anbar Province west of Baghdad, the military said in a statement, declining to provide details. Jim Dolan, a reporter with WABC-TV in New York who is embedded with the troops who were attacked, said insurgents ambushed a Marine convoy with a rocket-propelled grenade when it was leaving the town of Haditha.

Also, one Army soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in an attack that wounded two others, while another American soldier died and two more were wounded in Duluiyah, north of Baghdad, when insurgents attacked a patrol with rocket-propelled grenades.

Four US soldiers were wounded by a car bomb in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, that went off while interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was meeting with provincial governors at the US military headquarters there.

Meanwhile, seven US soldiers were wounded in two separate car-bomb attacks on the highway connecting Baghdad International Airport to the capital. The road, a crucial artery connecting the main American base at the airport to the Green Zone, the civilian headquarters and Iraqi government enclave in the city center, has increasingly come under attack.

Iraqis, who have lost 375 civilians and security personnel this month alone, continued to bear the brunt of insurgent attacks. In the bloodiest attack yesterday, a truck bomb detonated outside the offices of the Kurdish Democratic Party in the northern town of Sinjar, killing 15 people and wounding 30.

The Islamic militant group headed by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, which has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility. The group, calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq, also warned of further attacks and urged Iraqis to stay away from the polls.

Three suicide bombers struck in the town of Riyadh, a Sunni Muslim enclave in northern Iraq. Four Iraqi policemen, two Iraqi soldiers, and three civilians were killed. Another policeman was killed in the town of Baqubah, when gunmen fired on the local office of three parties vying for seats in the new National Assembly.

US and Iraqi forces have claimed some success in dismantling insurgent cells in the past week, announcing the arrests of several suspects accused of planning attacks against American troops, Iraqi security forces, and civilians. Yesterday the US Army said it arrested 19 suspected insurgents in a joint raid with Iraqi Army soldiers of the Al Rasoul mosque in eastern Baghdad.

Despite the violence, Bush said the United States must stay the course in Iraq and urged all Iraqis to vote in the election.

''I urge people to defy these terrorists," he said in his first press conference since his second-term inauguration last Thursday. ''These terrorists do not have the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind. They have no positive agenda. They have no clear view of a better future. They're afraid of a free society."

Bender reported from Washington and Cambanis from Baghdad. Material from wire services was included in this report.

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