Insurgents Down Civilian Helicopter Near Baghdad, Killing 11
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.
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.
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.
Blackwater is the same company that employed the four contractors brutally killed in Fallujah last April.
Clearly, the insurgents are stepping up their attacks again. Whether the downing of this helicopter represents an escalation or just a lucky shot is unclear, though.