Contractor Helicopter Downed in Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño, Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 -- A private security company helicopter was shot down after responding to assist a U.S. Embassy convoy that came under attack in central Baghdad on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. officials said.

One contractor traveling with the convoy and four contractors aboard the helicopter were killed. The contractors, officials said on condition of anonymity, were employed by North Carolina-based Blackwater USA. Blackwater officials declined to comment.

The convoy came under small-arms fire while traveling through a Sunni neighborhood en route to an Iraqi government ministry, officials said. The helicopter, a small, lightly armed surveillance craft, was dispatched to assist. According to a summary of events drafted by a U.S. Embassy employee and made available to The Washington Post, the convoy was also targeted with rocket-propelled grenades.

The helicopter crashed after being "riddled with small-arms fire," a State Department official said. The official said it was unclear whether the men aboard died from gunfire or from the impact of the crash.

No State Department employees were hurt in the attack, but some vehicles were destroyed, according to the summary of events in the report. Other vehicles in the convoy returned safely to the Green Zone.

Two separate Sunni insurgent groups, Ansar al-Sunnah and the Islamic Army in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the attacks on Web sites used by the groups. The accounts differ in significant detail, although Ansar published photos of what it said were the U.S. Embassy badge, credit cards and dog tags of one of the men killed in the attack.

The authenticity of the statements, translated and made available by the Washington-based SITE Institute, could not be independently confirmed.

The identification posted by Ansar was that of Arthur Laguna, 52, a pilot for Blackwater. His mother, Lydia Laguna, said in an interview that she received a call early Tuesday morning from her other son, also a Blackwater pilot in Baghdad, notifying her that Arthur had been killed.

"As far as any details, we're waiting for representatives from Blackwater to come by tomorrow," said Mary Beth Laguna, 52, Arthur Laguna's wife. "All I know is he's gone."

Arthur Laguna joined Blackwater about six months ago, after a military career that spanned about three decades with the U.S. Army and the California National Guard, she said.

The Pentagon has estimated that there are 100,000 government contractors operating in Iraq. More than 700 civilian contractors have been killed since 2003.

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry group that includes security contractors, said the type of helicopter downed, known as a "little bird," is among the safest modes of transportation in war zones.

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