US copter down in Iraq

Agencies
A US HELICOPTER came down near Baghdad on Monday in what appeared to be the second shooting down of an aircraft in three days, with rebel violence expected to escalate as Iraq’s election results are confirmed.

Local witnesses said the aircraft went down after coming under rocket fire in the small town of Mishahda just north of the capital. The US military confirmed the helicopter had come down but was still investigating the cause.

A military spokesman said two US pilots were killed.

Two little-known Iraqi insurgent groups issued separate claims for the downing of the helicopter and one issued a video apparently showing the attack, according to web postings.

US commanders have warned of a possible increase in violence once last month’s parliamentary elections results are finally announced, probably this week.

“We expect a hike in attacks in the next days because the multinational forces have destroyed many Al Qaeda positions,” Brigadier General Donald Alston, chief spokesman for US forces in Iraq, told reporters on Sunday.

Gunmen killed five policemen and one child in the town of Miqdadia, north of Baghdad, on Monday, and in a common rebel tactic, a car bomb exploded when reinforcements arrived. The attacks also wounded 18 people.

Iraq’s Electoral Commission annulled results from 227 ballot boxes, upholding complaints of irregularities in the December 15 elections, but said this would have little effect on results already announced.

Final results — based on tallies from some 31,000 ballot boxes — would be published on Friday, Electoral Commissioner Adel al-Lamy told Reuters, saying these would be in line with partial, provisional counts given some weeks ago.

Sunni Arab and secular parties complained of massive fraud in the elections but Sunni leaders are already discussing joining a grand coalition government with the dominant Shiite Islamists and the Kurdish bloc.

Iraqi officials had hoped a high turnout of Sunni voters in the polls would help deflate an insurgency led by members of the minority community, once dominant under Saddam Hussein.

Rebels rarely challenge US air power from the ground but their suicide and roadside bombs have killed thousands of Iraqi and US forces and civilians in a campaign designed to topple the Shiite-led government.

Guerrillas in northern Iraq apparently shot down an armed US reconnaissance helicopter on Friday, killing its two pilots. A week earlier, all 12 people aboard were killed when a Black Hawk helicopter went down close to the nearby northern city of Tal Afar, though that has so far been blamed on weather.

A video posted by the Mujahedeen Army on Monday appeared to show a missile being fired at a helicopter, which burst into flames at a distance and crashed, leaving a plume of smoke.

Another militant group, Salaheddin Al Ayubi Brigades, earlier issued an Internet statement claiming what appeared to be the same attack north of Baghdad.

“Your brothers in one of the units of the Salaheddin Al Ayubi Brigades… shot down an Apache helicopter in the Mishahda area with missiles,” said an Internet statement attributed to that group.

The authenticity of the statements could not be verified.

Only three small helicopters were confirmed as being shot down last year, although the causes of some other fatal crashes have not been made public. A British transport plane was brought down a year ago, killing all 10 onboard.

Election

Washington hopes a consensus government will emerge after the parliamentary elections on December 15 that can quell violence and allow US troops to begin withdrawing this year.

The pullout issue will gain importance as Americans review progress in Iraq ahead of mid-term US elections in November.

Stability is nowhere in sight.

Once dominant minority Sunnis are bitterly disappointed over continued Shiite strength and insurgents including Saddam’s supporters, other nationalist groups and Islamist militants show no signs of laying down their arms.

Saddam, who still inspires insurgents, is scheduled to return to take the stand again on January 24, the eighth day of his trial for crimes against humanity.

But the already turbulent trial, which opened in October, has been thrown into further disarray after the chief judge submitted his resignation in protest over government interference in the court’s procedures.

A spokesman for the court said Judge Rizgar Amin is standing by his resignation and efforts by Iraqi officials to dissuade him were not expected to reach a conclusion on Monday.

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