Tue, Feb 06, 2007 - Page 7 News List

US command orders changes after losing four aircraft

AP , BAGHDAD

The US command has ordered changes in flight operations after four helicopters were shot down in the last two weeks, the chief military spokesman said, acknowledging for the first time that the aircraft were lost to hostile fire.

The crashes, which began on Jan. 20, follow insurgent claims that they have received new stocks of anti-aircraft weapons -- and a recent boast by Sunni militants that "God has granted new ways" to threaten US aircraft. Al-Jazeera aired a video late on Sunday showing one of the US helicopters being hit in central Iraq and said it came from an insurgent Web site.

All four helicopters were shot down during a recent increase in violence, which an interior ministry official said has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in the past week alone. At least 103 people were killed or found dead on Sunday, most of them in Baghdad, police reported.

Major General William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes of three Army helicopters and one private one were incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."

It was the first time a senior figure in the US Iraq command had said publicly that all four helicopters were shot down.

Despite the losses, Caldwell said it was premature to conclude that the threat to US aircraft posed by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen had increased dramatically.

"There's been an ongoing effort since we've been here to target our helicopters," Caldwell said. "Based on what we have seen, we're already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures as to how we employ our helicopters."

Caldwell did not elaborate, presumably for security reasons. In the past, defensive measures have included flying lower and faster, varying routes and using zigzag patterns over dangerous areas.

Three crashed in mostly Sunni areas and the fourth was shot down during fighting with Shiite cultists near Najaf. The US has accused Iran of providing sophisticated weapons to Shiite militants.

In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath party, Khudair al-Murshidi, told the Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, that Sunni insurgents had received shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and "we are going to surprise them," meaning US forces.

Al-Murshidi did not say when or how the missiles were obtained.

Insurgents have used SA-7s, a shoulder-fired missile with an infrared homing device, against US and British aircraft since 2003.

In an Internet statement, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the latest crash -- an Apache Longbow helicopter that went down on Friday north of Baghdad, killing two crew members.

"We tell the enemies of God that the airspace of the Islamic State in Iraq is prohibited to your aircraft just like its lands are," the statement said. "God has granted new ways for the soldiers of the State of Iraq to confront your aircraft."

It was unclear whether the "new ways" referred to new and advanced anti-aircraft weapons -- such as SA-18 missiles -- or was simply a boast.

US military helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors and devices to jam radar and infrared technology, but they have proven vulnerable to intense gunfire, as well as rocket-propelled grenades.

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