By Ernesto Londoño and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 8, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 -- On the day the U.S. military announced that American and Iraqi forces had begun implementing their long-awaited security plan, a U.S. Marine transport helicopter crashed northwest of Baghdad, the fifth deadly loss of an American helicopter in Iraq in less than three weeks.
Military officials said all seven crew members and passengers were killed in the crash of the CH-46 Sea Knight on Wednesday in Anbar province. The cause remains under investigation, but officials said the aircraft was having mechanical problems before it went down. The four other helicopters in recent crashes were shot down, the military acknowledged this week.
The U.S. military's chief spokesman in Iraq said Wednesday that U.S. and Iraqi forces had begun a joint effort to secure Baghdad and troubled Anbar province.
"The plan is being fully implemented as we speak," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters after being asked when the plan would start. "Not all aspects are in place at this point."
The plan is being led by Iraqi officials and is designed to stop violence in the capital's volatile neighborhoods, Caldwell said. Officials have established nine new security districts in Baghdad and are creating dozens of security stations that Iraqi police and military officers will share with U.S. military personnel.
"The key difference is, this time it's an Iraqi-led plan," Caldwell said. "Not only are they planning it, they are leading."
The announcement was something of a surprise, because officials had lately issued contradictory and vague messages about the scope and timing of the plan. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday urged his generals to move more quickly to get the plan off the ground.
"We will prove at the start of the Baghdad security plan that the Iraqi army and police can play an effective, courageous role," Maliki told the generals in a televised speech. "We will also disprove to the world that the Iraqi army relies on others and is not qualified to shoulder the responsibility."
Caldwell praised Maliki's leadership and what he described as the prime minister's commitment to keep political and sectarian differences from hindering the plan. Iraqi political leaders, many of whom draw some of their political strength from militias and insurgents, have in the past sought to influence military operations to protect militant groups loyal to them. Caldwell said that Maliki, who has been accused of protecting the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite Muslim militia, is urging his generals to resist such meddling.
"He doesn't want politicians calling and interfering with their mission," Caldwell said.
The rollout of the security plan comes as bombings and other acts of violence, much of it driven by sectarian fighting, continue in the capital.
"We are in a tough, tough situation," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said in an interview Wednesday. He said the full implementation of the plan will take time because it involves "the mobilization of a lot of resources and assets, and the hope is that it will lead to a noticeable change in the security in Baghdad."
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that investigators were questioning four members of the Iraqi armed forces detained Sunday after other members of their group kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad. He said the government is pursuing "strong leads" in the abduction.
"There is confusion as to their affiliation" within the armed forces, Zebari said. Iranian officials have alleged that the U.S. government was responsible for the kidnapping, which U.S. officials deny. There has been no further information on the fate of the diplomat.
Two U.S. military officials familiar with the latest helicopter crash investigation said the Marine aircraft apparently experienced equipment malfunction before crashing Wednesday morning. The troops aboard were on a routine mission, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is underway.
A shop owner who works near the crash site in Garma, an area of orchards in Anbar province, said insurgents with machine guns drove by his store at approximately 10:30 a.m. claiming to have downed the aircraft.
"They told us, 'We just downed a helicopter,' " said Abu Anas, 30, who declined to give his full name. "When we went up to the roof, we saw big black smoke going up into the sky and an unbelievable fire. I have never seen such a fire."
The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group, asserted responsibility for downing the helicopter in a statement posted on a Web site used by insurgents. The authenticity of the claim could not be verified.
One of the military officials familiar with the investigations of the five helicopter crashes said Wednesday that while none of the probes is complete, officials have identified common characteristics. The four before Wednesday's crash took place in the most heavily traveled air corridor in Iraq, where insurgents have been able to study flight patterns and techniques. One helicopter was being operated by the contracting firm Blackwater USA.
"The enemy in that area is smart and attuned to the air traffic and the fact that there's a big media splash when one goes down," the military official said. "The enemy has been concentrating on these more known routes in an attempt to interdict us. We are looking at ways now to ensure that the helicopter routes are more varied and more circuitous, and flying in a tactical manner to lessen the possibility of these types of tragedies."
Overall, the recent crashes do not present a significant strain on U.S. helicopter capabilities in the region, because there are hundreds of helicopters flying thousands of missions a month in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Brookings Institution has counted 56 downed U.S. military helicopters in Iraq since May 2003 and says enemy fire was responsible for about half of the crashes.
The CH-46, a Vietnam-era aircraft, is one of the oldest in the U.S. military's fleet.
Nearly 5,000 U.S. helicopters were lost in Vietnam -- about 2,075 were shot down and 2,560 were lost in accidents and mechanical malfunctions -- according to "The Vietnam War Almanac" by Harry G. Summers Jr., who served as an Army colonel.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said a Marine was killed Tuesday in fighting in Anbar province.
Staff writer Josh White and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington, and special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.