FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – Targeting Americans with new audacity,
insurgents hiding in a date palm grove shot down a Chinook
helicopter carrying dozens of soldiers heading for home leave
yesterday, killing 16 and wounding 20 in the deadliest strike
against U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq in March.

Mira Levitan
A U.S. Army helicopter flies near the area where a U.S. Chinook helicopter was struck by a missile and crashed near Fallujah. (AP PHOTO)

Witnesses said the attackers used missiles – a sign of the
increasing sophistication of Iraq’s elusive anti-U.S. fighters.

Three other Americans were killed in separate attacks yesterday,
including one 1st Armored Division soldier in Baghdad and two U.S.
civilians working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fallujah.
All three were victims of roadside bombs, the military said.

Yesterday’s death toll was the highest for American troops since
March 23 – the first week of the invasion that ousted Saddam
Hussein – and the attack represented a major escalation in the
campaign to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of the country.

The giant helicopter was ferrying the soldiers on their way for
leave outside Iraq when two missiles streaked into the sky and
slammed into the rear of the aircraft, witnesses told The
Associated Press. It crashed in flames in farmers’ fields west of
Baghdad.

“It’s clearly a tragic day for America,” Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington. “In a long, hard war, we’re
going to have tragic days. But they’re necessary. They’re part of a
war that’s difficult and complicated.”

Like past attacks on U.S. forces and a string of suicide
bombings that killed dozens in Baghdad the past week, U.S.
coalition officials blamed either Saddam loyalists or foreign
fighters for the strike outside Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim
resistance to the U.S. occupation.

President Bush, who was at his Texas ranch yesterday, refused to
personally comment on the attacks. He spent the day out of public
view – a “down” day between campaign appearances Saturday and
today.

L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation in Iraq, repeated
demands that Syria and Iran prevent fighters from crossing their
borders into Iraq.

“They could do a much better job of helping us seal that border
and keeping terrorist out of Iraq,” he told CNN. The “enemies of
freedom” in Iraq “are using more sophisticated techniques to attack
our forces.”

U.S. officials have been warning of the danger of shoulder-fired
missiles, thousands of which are now scattered from Saddam’s
arsenals, and such missiles are believed to have downed two U.S.
copters since May 1. Those two crashes – of smaller helicopters –
wounded only one American.

The loaded-down Chinook was a dramatic new target. The
insurgents have been steadily advancing in their weaponry, first
using homemade roadside bombs, then rocket-fired grenades in
ambushes on American patrols, and vehicles stuffed with explosives
and detonated by suicide attackers.

In the fields south of Fallujah, some villagers proudly showed
off blackened pieces of the Chinook’s wreckage to arriving
reporters.

Though a few villagers tried to help, many celebrated word of
the helicopter downing, as well as a fresh attack on U.S. soldiers
in Fallujah itself. Two American civilians working under contract
for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were killed and one was
injured in the explosion of a roadside bomb, the military said.

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