BAGHDAD, April 21 -- Insurgents shot down a helicopter with a heat-seeking missile north of the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing all six American security contractors and five others on board, according to U.S. officials and insurgents.
The attack marked the first time in the two years of the U.S.-led occupation that fighters in Iraq have succeeded in bringing down an aircraft contracted for transporting civilians. Planes and helicopters are being used increasingly around the country as attacks make road travel on vital routes deadly for Iraqis and foreigners alike.
Iraqis in the Shiite holy city of Najaf gather around bodies brought there for burial after surfacing in the Tigris River. Some officials say Sunni extremists are to blame.
(Saad Serhan -- Getty Images)
On one of the most notorious of those routes, Baghdad's dangerous airport road, a bomb exploded Thursday, killing two foreigners and wounding three, Iraqi police said. The strike highlighted the inability of U.S. forces and their allies to prevent attacks on one of the most heavily traveled and most reliably targeted corridors in Iraq.
At least 15 people have been killed and 17 wounded in a week of bombings and ambushes by gunmen on and around the airport road. The victims include civilians and Iraqi soldiers, and soldiers from the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Australia, Brazil and the Philippines. Wounded tolls generally do not include Iraqi victims taken to civilian hospitals.
A security adviser to Iraq's new government denied Thursday that insurgent violence had increased after several weeks in which attacks waned following the Jan. 30 national elections.
Meanwhile, in the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, about 700 Shiite Muslims staged a protest after 18 more bodies rose to the surface of the Tigris River, among dozens that have surfaced in the past two days. Some leaders of Iraq's new governing coalition, led by Shiites and Kurds, have said the corpses -- at least 76 in all -- are proof of a rumored Sunni Muslim extremist campaign to target Iraq's newly ascendant Shiite majority. Health officials suggested on Thursday, however, that the sudden appearances may be the result of a spring thaw, bringing up victims killed in numerous incidents over a violent winter, the Associated Press reported.
Insurgents asserted responsibility for the downing of the chartered helicopter, a military craft designed and built in the former Soviet Union. The helicopter went down over countryside along the Tigris farmed by prosperous Sunnis intensely loyal to the former government of Saddam Hussein.
The six Americans on board were employees of Blackwater USA, a private security firm in North Carolina, U.S. officials said.
The Blackwater contractors and two Fijian bodyguards working for Virginia-based Skylink Air and Logistic Support were en route from a Baghdad-area airfield to Tikrit, north of the capital, U.S. officials said.
The three-man Bulgarian crew was flying the helicopter close to the ground, a military tactic intended to avoid giving attackers time to spot aircraft and line up a shot, according to U.S. officials. The tactic can be risky if adversaries hold a position that nevertheless allows them to spot and track incoming aircraft.
In Ramadi, a western base for insurgents, a message posted early Thursday afternoon on the gates of a mosque that has served as a bulletin board for alleged insurgent statements asserted that an attacker with a shoulder-fired missile launcher had waited three days on a hilltop for his successful shot at a foreign aircraft.
The statement described the weapon as a Soviet-designed Strella heat-seeking antiaircraft missile, the insurgent statement claimed. In Sofia, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry also said the helicopter had been brought down by a missile.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it presumed that hostile fire took down the craft but said confirmation would come only after investigation.
A video broadcast on Arabic-language television, apparently recorded within minutes of the downing and before U.S. forces arrived, showed the helicopter blades jutting from still-flaming ashes and wreckage. Western-style clothing lay scattered. The video was broadcast about two hours after the attack.
The attack marked the 17th death among Blackwater employees in Iraq in a little more than a year. In March 2004, four Blackwater contract guards were killed in Fallujah and their bodies were set afire; two were hung from a bridge. That attack marked a new, harrowing phase of grisly attacks against U.S. forces, their allies and others considered by insurgents to be working with them.
Until violence rebounded this month, American officials had credited a U.S.-led assault on the city of Fallujah in November as a turning point in efforts to subdue militants.
There was no immediate word on the nationality of the two foreigners reported killed Thursday on the airport road, although U.S. officials said they were not Americans. In London, the Foreign Office would not comment on reports that one of the victims was a British civilian contractor.
Southeast of Baghdad, fishermen in the town of Aziziyah alerted authorities to the 18 bodies floating on the Tigris. They had slipped free from sandbags weighing them down. The bodies, some with hands bound by cloth, were in varying states of decay, including some reduced nearly to skeletons, said Lt. Ghazwan Hussein, a police spokesman. He said police expected to find more bodies under the sandbags.
In Ramadi on Thursday, a U.S. soldier shot and fatally wounded an Iraqi woman immediately after a roadside bomb exploded, injuring one soldier, the U.S. military said. An electronic device, suspected to have been used to set off the bomb, was found next to the woman, the military said.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Glenda Cooper in London contributed to this report.