U.S. says hostile fire brought down 4 helicopters in recent weeks

BAGHDAD, Iraq – As Iraqis mourned the victims of the worst single bombing since the American invasion almost four years ago, U.S. military officials acknowledged Sunday that the four U.S. helicopters that crashed since Jan. 20 were all brought down by hostile fire.

The Saturday truck bomb in a Baghdad market and Maj. Gen. William Caldwell’s admission Sunday of militants’ success against U.S. airpower told the story of a deepening crisis here, even as Iraqi officials prepare to implement their new security plan and additional American troops come riding into town.

In a separate announcement Sunday afternoon, U.S. military officials said the security plan would start Monday and expand over coming days and weeks.

Tense emotions spilled over into parliament, where Shiite representatives stormed out en masse as Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a polarizing Sunni, tried to read a telegram about the recent battle in Najaf. In a fierce argument that preceded the walkout, Shiites said he needed to be working to prevent bombings, not reading telegrams into the record from “an unknown person,” as Abdul Kareem al-E’enizi of the 128-member Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance shouted from his seat.

“You are to run the session but not make decisions for us,” yelled another Alliance parliamentarian, Sami al-Askari. “You have no right to interrupt the speech of any of us!”

“Keep your advice for yourself,” the speaker yelled back. “Give your advice to the prime minister!” The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is Shiite.

Mashhadani gaveled the session to a close as the Alliance members packed their papers and briefcases. They have not said publicly whether they would continue their protest.

Caldwell, the U.S. military’s chief spokesman, told reporters at a press conference behind the walls and checkpoints of Baghdad’s Green Zone that investigations into the copter crashes were still under way and he couldn’t say how each was shot down. Eyewitnesses had already reported seeing three of the helicopters crash after taking hits from ground fire.

Two were Apache attack helicopters that went down in battles Jan. 28 and Feb. 2, each killing two. Twelve people, most from National Guard units, died Jan. 20 when a Black Hawk transport helicopter crashed in Diyala province. And four Blackwater security contractors died when their light combat helicopter crashed in Baghdad Jan. 23. The same firefight killed another Blackwater gunner in a second helicopter.

“The investigation of each of those is ongoing, but it does appear that they were all the result of some kind of (anti-aircraft) ground fire that did bring those helicopters down,” Caldwell said. “Obviously, based on what we have seen, we were already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures.”

In a roundtable discussion with reporters on a military base near the Baghdad airport, U.S. military officials announced that an Iraqi command structure for the Baghdad Security Plan would be in place Monday, led by Lt. Gen Aboud Qanbar.

The plan will begin small and slowly escalate, said Col. Douglass Heckman, senior adviser to the 9th Iraqi Army division, which operates east of the Tigris River where the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City is located.

“It’s going to be different than anything we’ve done before,” Heckman said. “There are going to be a lot more boots on the ground, a lot more integration.”

Heckman, Col. Chip Lewis, senior adviser to the National Police headquarters, and Col. Stuart Pollock, senior adviser to the 6th Iraqi Army Division, said the plan would comprise a larger presence of troops, a new command structure and a longer time in place.

In previous Baghdad security plans, insurgents retook neighborhoods after the military left.

“Our mission is to bring stability to Iraq,” Lewis said.

Heckman said the plan would give a “perception” of sectarian balance, acknowledging Sunni fears that the plan would target them to a greater degree than Shiite militias.

Lewis said the Iraqi forces are now mixed. At least one of two national police division commanders in Baghdad is Sunni and Sunnis head four of eight national police brigades.

The Baghdad security plan would set up at least one joint security station, where U.S. and Iraqi security forces would work together, in each of the nine districts of the capital. The hope is that Iraqis would turn to security forces for protection in their neighborhoods rather than Shiite or Sunni sectarian forces.

Lewis said all national police brigades are being retrained. In the past three months 3,000 Iraqi National police have either been fired, reassigned or forced into retirement in an effort to cleanse the system, Lewis said. Local Iraqi police have not been purged, he said.

“Are we where we want to be? No. Are we making steady progress? Yes,” he said.

Heckman acknowledged that there was political pressure when it came to the slums of Sadr City, where some 2 million Shiites live under control of the Mahdi Army, a sectarian militia. The security forces may take a more nimble approach there, rather than the air and land siege that has already happened in some Sunni areas of the capital.

“We do have restrictions,” Heckman said. But, he added, “Our mission is to bring stability to Iraq. If we feel we’ll have to clear Sadr City to do that, then we will.”