Americans Shot Execution-Style

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Four of the five Americans killed when a U.S. security company's helicopter crashed in Baghdad were shot execution-style in the back of the head, officials said yesterday.

A senior Iraqi military official said a machine-gunner downed the helicopter, but a U.S. military official in Washington said there were no indications that the aircraft, owned by North Carolina-based Blackwater USA, had been shot out of the sky.

Two Sunni insurgent groups separately claimed responsibility for the Tuesday crash, the second associated with the U.S. war effort in Iraq in four days.

In Washington, a U.S. defense official said four of the five killed were shot in the back of the head but that he did not know whether they were still alive when they were shot.

The helicopter was shot down after responding to assist a U.S. Embassy ground convoy that came under fire in a Sunni neighborhood in central Baghdad, said a U.S. diplomatic official in Washington. A second helicopter also was struck, but there were no casualties among its crew, the official said.

The helicopter that crashed had swooped into electrical wires before going down. U.S. officials said it was not clear whether gunfire brought the aircraft down or caused its pilot to veer into the wires during evasive maneuvers.

Witnesses in the Fadhil neighborhood told The Associated Press that they saw the helicopter go down after gunmen on the ground opened fire. Accounts varied, but all were consistent that at least one person operating the aircraft had been shot and badly hurt before the crash.

An American official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three Blackwater helicopters were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said.

That helicopter apparently was able to take off, but a second one then crashed in the same area, he added without explaining the involvement of the third helicopter. Blackwater USA provides security for State Department officials in Iraq, trains military units from around the world and works for corporate clients.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television station said the 1920 Revolution Brigades insurgent group claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter and showed a video taken by a cell phone of a mass of still-smoldering twisted metal that the group said was the wreckage of the chopper.

Another Sunni insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, also claimed responsibility and posted identity cards of men who were on the helicopter on a Web site, including at least two that bore the name of Arthur Laguna, who was later identified by his mother as among those killed.

Laguna was a 52-year-old pilot for Blackwater who previously served in the Army and the California National Guard, his mother, Lydia Laguna, of Rio Linda, Calif., told AP.

On Saturday, a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The American military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was shot by a surface-to-air missile.