US helicopter crashes in Iraq, all 13 aboard dead

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — A US military helicopter crashed northeast of Baghdad on Saturday, killing all 13 military personnel on board, but US officials gave no immediate details on the cause.

It was one of the deadliest single incidents for US forces since the 2003 invasion and the bloodiest since US President George W. Bush announced an increase in troop numbers that has run into opposition among Democrats now controlling Congress.

The incident brought to 16 the number of US military deaths in Iraq announced on Saturday.

Dozens of helicopters have crashed in Iraq over the past four years, a number shot down by insurgents. The area northeast of Baghdad, in Diyala province, is one where fighting has been intense between US forces and guerrillas.

“A US forces helicopter went down northeast of Baghdad … Emergency Coalition Forces responded and secured the scene.

Thirteen passengers and crew members were aboard the aircraft and all were killed,” the US military said in a statement.

It did not identify the type of helicopter. The Blackhawk helicopter widely used in Iraq carries four crew and about 10 passengers on a typical flight.

A helicopter crash in January 2005 killed 31 US troops.

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Bush on Friday of playing politics with troops’ lives. Bush said 10 days ago he was sending 21,500 extra troops, most of them to Baghdad to avert a slide towards all-out sectarian civil war.

In the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala, where thousands of pilgrims gathered for the start of the 10-day ritual of Ashura, a highpoint of the Shiite religious calendar, a series of explosions rocked the local governor’s building after dark.

Police sources said there were no casualties.

Although police initially described it as a mortar attack, sources familiar with security in the city said US and Iraqi forces had raided the building, apparently looking for people involved in the killing of a local official.

Islamist factions

As in other southern Shiite cities, rival Islamist factions are battling for power.

After nightfall, residents said they heard the roar of what appeared to be US warplanes over the city, which lies 110km south of Baghdad. A US military spokeswoman said she was unaware of an operation in Karbala.

Ashura lasts for 10 days and is the highpoint of the Shiite religious year. Similar rites, effectively banned under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated secular rule, have come under attack since the US-led invasion from Al Qaeda and other groups.

Earlier on Saturday, Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s political movement accused Washington of trying to provoke a confrontation by arresting one of its key figures.

Abdul-Hadi Darraji, a spokesman for Sadr, was among at least three people arrested by US and Iraqi troops in a midnight raid on Sadr City, a stronghold of Sadr’s Mehdi Army in northeast Baghdad where US forces rarely venture.

Sadr’s movement is a member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite bloc in the government, but Maliki has been criticised by Washington and leaders of the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority for failing to disarm the Mehdi Army.

Abdul Mehdi Mtiri, a member of the Sadr movement’s political committee, said Iraqi officials had promised Darraji would be released. “We don’t know how serious this promise is because so far he has not been released,” said Mtiri.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, who said on Friday the operation had Maliki’s full backing, told Iraqiya state television he did not expect Darraji to be released on Saturday.

“The matter is not in the hands of the Iraqi government. The Americans arrested him and they’re investigating him and when they’re finished they will release him,” said Dabbagh.

Dealing with Sadr and the Mehdi Army is a burning issue for US forces and Maliki as they prepare for what many see as a last-ditch effort to curb the sectarian violence that threatens to push Iraq towards civil war.

Sadr, a young populist cleric, enjoys a mass following in Iraq and some backing from neighbouring Shiite Iran.

“We know the truth behind this arrest is the Americans want to target the Sadrists and they want to draw the Sadrists into a confrontation with the American troops,” said Mtiri.

After criticism from Washington, Maliki has said the planned crackdown in Baghdad, backed by most of the 21,500 US reinforcements being sent by Bush, would tackle Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents.

In a raid in southern Baghdad on Saturday, about 100 Iraqi police commandos backed by six US helicopters killed 15 suspected Sunni insurgents, interior ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.

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