A U.S. Marine transport helicopter crashed in flames Wednesday in a field northwest of Baghdad, killing all seven people aboard, the U.S. military said. It was the sixth U.S. aircraft reported lost in less than three weeks and the latest sign of growing problems with aviation in Iraq.
A U.S. military statement gave no reason for the crash of the CH-46 Sea Knight, which went down near Fallujah in Anbar province, about 20 miles from Baghdad. However, at the Pentagon, three Marine Corps officials said the troop-transport helicopter was in flames when it went down, with the pilot appearing to attempt a hasty landing but losing control as the aircraft descended.
They said witnesses in nearby Marine aircraft saw the flames but saw no sign that it involved hostile fire.
An Iraqi air force officer, however, said the helicopter was downed by an anti-aircraft missile. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.
An Iraqi farmer who lives about a half mile from the crash site said he heard a missile fired moments before the crash, which took place in an insurgent-infested region.
"The helicopter was flying and passed over us, then we heard the firing of a missile," the farmer, Mohammed al-Janabi, said. "The helicopter then turned into a ball of fire. It flew in a circle twice and then went down."
Associated Press Television video showed the flaming wreckage lying in a field in front of a cluster of mud homes. A dense plume of black smoke rose over the remains. The Marine officials suspected the fire was caused by a mechanical problem, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Names of the victims were not released, but military officials said they included five Marines and two from the Navy.
In a statement posted on an extremist Web site, an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq, claimed it shot down the helicopter, which it described as a Chinook - an Army helicopter which resembles a Sea Knight.
Critics have long urged the military to replace the CH-46, which was introduced in 1964 at the start of the Vietnam War. In 2001, retired Col. Frank Jensen wrote in Defense News that the Marines should replace the CH-46 but cannot because of budget limitations.
Regardless of the cause, the latest crash adds urgency to a U.S. military review of flight operations in Iraq, including whether insurgents have perfected skills in attacking U.S. planes.
The New York Times late Wednesday detailed a previously unreported downing of a helicopter on Jan. 31. Citing unnamed American officials, the newspaper said a private security firm was flying the aircraft in support of State Department operations.
Insurgents attacked the helicopter with heavy-caliber ground fire and another American helicopter rescued passengers and crew, American officials told The Times. A quick reaction force suffered several casualties while responding to the crash scene, The Times reported.
"We are aware of an incident involving a civilian helicopter on Jan. 31. That incident remains under investigation," Lou Fintor, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad, said Thursday.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
Wednesday's crash occurred five days after a U.S. Army Apache helicopter went down in a hail of gunfire north of Baghdad. Three other helicopters - two from the Army and one operated by an American security firm - also have crashed since Jan. 20. A total of 27 people - 23 U.S. service members and four American civilian contractors - were killed in the five crashes.
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