BAGHDAD, Jan. 26 -- A Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed during a sandstorm in western Iraq early Wednesday, killing 30 Marines and a sailor in the deadliest single event for U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq nearly two years ago. Four more Marines and two soldiers died in attacks, bringing to 37 the U.S. toll for the day.
U.S. military officials said the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter went down at 1:20 a.m. near Rutbah, a town about 220 miles west of Baghdad, in volatile Anbar province. Defense Department officials in Washington said the pilot may have been unable to navigate through the sandstorm. Officials said the cause was still under investigation.
At a news conference in Washington, President Bush expressed his condolences and said word of the crash "is going to be very discouraging to the American people. I understand that." But he added that "it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom."
Pentagon officials warned that the Iraqi elections this Sunday would be followed by a period of political uncertainty and insurgent violence. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, said they expected insurgent attacks to continue after the vote.
"We have to recognize what -- how determined the people we're up against are," Rumsfeld said at a brief news conference on Capitol Hill. "So one has to expect that the level of violence will either stay where it is, or go up or down modestly during this period, as they attempt to prevent from happening that which is going to happen."
In Baghdad, Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters that U.S. and Iraqi forces were making gains against the insurgency, estimating that 15,000 militants had been killed or captured in the previous 12 months.
The pace of violence increased Wednesday in advance of Sunday's parliamentary elections. Insurgents attacked offices of political parties, destroyed schools that were to be used as polling places and set off bombs in several parts of the country. Eleven Iraqis died in attacks, and two insurgents died when their car bomb exploded prematurely, the Associated Press reported.
A senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his comments were not cleared with Washington, said that the insurgents were "getting much better at the game of intimidation" and that their ranks had grown in recent months.
"There probably are more of them," the diplomat said. "The number of attacks would suggest there's somewhat more, but not a lot more."
The diplomat said the election would serve as a test of the insurgents' capacity since they have repeatedly vowed to disrupt the balloting. "If they had any more to give, in terms of volume, they'd give it now."
Casey cited what he called recent progress in fighting the insurgents, including loyalists of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent leader. "Just this month we think we've picked up more than 60 key members of Zarqawi's network and former regime elements," he said. "The reality is, the level of violence and attacks is not substantially greater than [during] the transition to sovereignty" in June.
"Where they really are getting stronger is, they have carried a campaign of intimidation to the Iraqi people in the Sunni areas. That's where they've been successful," Casey said.
The insurgency has become better organized, Casey said, but "it's not spread." While noting the sharp rise in car bombings in the last three months, he said that "around 30 percent of the car bombs have been suicide" attacks, which he said had "risen a bit lately." He said vehicle bombs had killed 375 Iraqi civilians and security personnel in the past 12 months.
Casey said that Iraqi security forces were still unable to assume primary responsibility for defending Iraq's central government but that the police, National Guard and army were up to the task of providing primary security at polling stations. "They're capable of doing low-level duties on a day-to-day basis," he said.