Sixteen U.S. troops died and another 20 were wounded when the Chinook helicopter crashed. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the attack, the single deadliest against Americans since the beginning of the war to oust Saddam Hussein, a “tragic” but necessary part of the war.
The 10-ton Chinook helicopter was hit by a shoulder-fired missile as it traveled some 50 miles west of Baghdad. The helicopter, crippled and smoking, crashed into a farm field and burst into flames, according to witnesses who spoke with reporters near the scene.
Central Command spokespeople said they were still investigating the incident, although American officials in Washington said the helicopter had been downed by an anti-aircraft missile.
“It’s clearly a tragic day for America … In a long, hard war, we’re going to have tragic days,” Rumsfeld said. “But they’re necessary. They’re part of a war that’s difficult and complicated.”
Rumsfeld, who appeared on several of the Sunday morning television talk shows, warned that this would not be the last day of such violence.
“In a war, there are going to be days like that. And it is necessary that we recognize that,” the Pentagon chief told “Fox News Sunday.”
“There are going to be days where large numbers of people … are killed. That’s what war is about. Is it deteriorating in general? No, it’s not,” Rumsfeld added.
President Bush, who was spending the weekend at his Texas ranch, was told by his staff about the downing of the Chinook and was receiving updates as the situation unfolded, a White House spokesman said.
The attack came at the end of a bloody week in Iraq, where bombings and suicide attackers targeted Iraqis working with the American occupation, the International Red Cross and American soldiers.
In the last week, the number of attacks have surged to an average of 33 a day, but none more deadly than the missile strike on the helicopter Sunday morning.
Asked about who was responsible for such a wave of strikes against coalition forces, Rumsfeld blamed criminal elements and those still loyal to the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“We know why they’re doing it,” Rumsfeld told ABC’s “This Week” program. “There are criminals in that country who will do things for money. There are foreign terrorists in that country … who have come back in from Iran and are trying to kill people. And there are the remnants of the Baathist regime. And they want to take that country back, and they’re not going to. They’re not going to come close to taking that country back.
Near the scene of the helicopter crash, some Iraqis welcomed the attack and hailed the death of Americans.
“The Americans are pigs. We will hold a celebration because this helicopter went down — a big celebration,” wheat farmer Saadoun Jaralla told Reuters. “The Americans are enemies of mankind.”
According to the Associated Press, the death toll from Sunday surpassed the deadliest single attack during the Iraq war: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured, including Pvt. Jessica Lynch. A total 28 Americans around the country died that day, the deadliest for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
Even before the helicopter crash, other attacks against Americans continued. Just after midnight, a soldier from the 1st Armored Division was killed when an improvised bomb exploded as his vehicle passed.
Later in the day two American civilians working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were killed in a separate attack, according to Coalition officials.
In a western suburb of Baghdad, Abu Ghraib, U.S. troops also reportedly clashed with townspeople Sunday for the second time in three days, and witnesses reported casualties among both the Americans and Iraqis.
Witnesses told reporters that U.S. troops arrived at a marketplace in the tense city and order a crowd to disperse. According to the AP and Reuters, one of those gathered at the scene lobbed a grenade at the Americans. U.S. soldiers then, according to those who saw the confrontation, opened fire on the crowd.
U.S. Central Command said they had no reports of the clash, but news wire services reported that as many as four Americans may have been killed or injured and some six Iraqis injured, but no official confirmation was available.