Four Copter Losses Due to Ground Fire

All four U.S. helicopters that have crashed in Iraq since Jan. 20 appear to have been brought down by "some kind" of ground fire but it is unclear whether this represents any new threat to U.S. aviation, the chief U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.

It was the first time that the U.S. command has publicly acknowledged that the three Army helicopters and one private helicopter were probably shot down.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes are incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."

"We don't see this as a focus just on the multinational force," Caldwell said. "There's been an ongoing effort since we've been here to target our helicopters. Based on what we have seen, we're already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures as to how we employ our helicopters."

Meanwhile, eight people were killed in two car bombings Sunday, four at a bus station serving the Shiite Sadr City enclave and four while waiting to refill propane cooking gas canisters in south Baghdad's dangerous Dora neighborhood.

In the aftermath of the worst single bomb attack in Iraq since the start of the war - 132 people killed in a suicide truck bombing on a Shiite market - stunned Iraqis loaded coffins onto minivans and picked through the rubble of buildings.

The explosion Saturday was fifth major bombing in less than a month targeting predominantly Shiite districts in Baghdad and the southern Shiite city of Hillah. It also was the worst in the capital since a series of car bombs and mortars killed at least 215 people in the Shiite district of Sadr City on Nov. 23.

Hospital officials said 132 people were killed and 305 were wounded in the thunderous explosion that sent a column of smoke into the sky on the east bank of the Tigris River. Heavily bandaged women, children and men filled hospital beds, while several bloodied bodies were piled onto blankets on the floor of the morgue, which was filled to capacity.

The blast shaved the walls off nearby buildings, sending bricks, desks and other debris spilling onto Kifah Street, where the Sadriyah market was located. Minivans carried wooden coffins as funeral services were held for the victims.

Adnan Lafta, a 51-year-old seller of gas cylinders, said people had recovered two bodies and body parts from under the rubble, while Shiite militiamen prevented anyone from entering the emptied buildings.

Police used loudspeakers to ask people to leave the area, fearing another suicide bomber could slip into the crowd.

"It is a tragedy. The terrorists want to punish the Iraqi people. There was no police or American presence in this market yesterday," Lafta said.

The bombing came just days before American and Iraqi forces were expected to start an all-out assault on Sunni and Shiite gunmen and bombers in the capital.

Only a day earlier, 16 American intelligence agencies made public a National Intelligence Estimate that said conditions in Baghdad were perilous.

"Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress ... in the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate," a declassified synopsis of the report declared.

Suspicion fell on Sunni insurgents - al-Qaida in Iraq and allied groups in particular. The militant bombers are believed to have stepped up their campaign against Shiites in the final days before the joint U.S.-Iraqi crackdown in Baghdad. Many saw the operation as a last-chance effort to clamp off violence that has turned the capital into a sectarian battleground.

Iraqis elsewhere in Baghdad faced another round of bombings and shootings on Sunday, with at least 22 people killed, including two cell phone company employees in a drive-by shooting and four policemen who were struck by a roadside bomb.

Iraqi soldiers also detained 32 militants and discovered four weapons caches in western Baghdad, seizing 1,128 mortar rounds, five rocket-propelled grenades, a rocket launcher, 50 anti-aircraft shells and other ammunition, according to the Defense Ministry.

Suspected Sunni attackers have appeared emboldened in recent weeks after radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, under pressure from fellow Shiites who dominate the government, ordered the thousands of gunmen in his Mahdi Army militia to avoid American attacks in the coming assault.

Saturday's death toll surpassed a Feb. 28, 2005, suicide car bomb targeting mostly Shiite police and national guard recruits in Hillah that killed 125.

In the hours after the explosion, Shiite and Sunni mortar teams traded fire across the darkened city. Two people were killed and 20 wounded in one predominantly Sunni district.

The White House called the bombing an atrocity. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the attack was "an example of what the forces of evil will do to intimidate the Iraqi people."

Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri of the Iraqi Interior Ministry said the truck had been packed with a ton of explosives.

An Iraqi militant group tied to al-Qaida in Iraq announced Saturday it had launched its own new strategy to counter the coming U.S.-Iraqi crackdown.

In an audiotape posted on a Web site commonly used by the insurgents, a voice purported to be that of Abu Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said the group would "widen the circle of battles" beyond Baghdad to all of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi heads The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups in Iraq.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of five more soldiers - four in fighting and one of an apparent heart attack. All died Friday.

Iraqi authorities said that 145 people were killed or were found dead Saturday, including those killed in the market bombing. Of the total, 19 were found dumped in the capital, most of the bodies showing signs of torture.


Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Qais al-Bashir contributed to this report.

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