BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military confirmed Friday that an Apache helicopter was shot down by enemy fire in Iraq, bringing to four the total of U.S. choppers that have crashed in there this month.
A spokesperson at the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) in Baghdad said the Apache, which can carry a total of two people, was brought down by enemy fire. No more details were released.
Witnesses and police had earlier claimed that a helicopter had been shot down in the area surrounding Taji, an air base 12 miles north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces said they killed 18 insurgents after coming under attack in a volatile city west of the capital.
Local officials in Hillah announced a three-day mourning period after two suicide bombers detonated explosives Thursday among shoppers in a crowded outdoor market in the Shiite city south of Baghdad, while police raised the casualty total to at least 73 people killed and 163 wounded.
Witnesses and local police said two helicopters were flying together when gunmen opened fire at 7:30 a.m. local time, sending one of the aircraft plunging to the ground with a trail of smoke behind it.
Some witnesses described two helicopters going down, but police said only that the wreckage from one aircraft had been found near a fuel storage complex in a rural area near Taji.
The area was sealed off by American forces and U.S. planes were flying overhead, witnesses said, but the reports couldn't be independently confirmed.
Three other helicopters — two military and one civilian — had already been lost in Iraq in the past two weeks, including an AH-64 Apache helicopter that went down on Sunday during heavy fighting near Najaf, south of Baghdad, killing the two crew members, and a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, killing 12 soldiers aboard. All three were believed to have been shot down, but the military has not confirmed that.
The U.S. military relies heavily on air transportation in Iraq to avoid roadside bombs and insurgent attacks and the recent spate of losses underscores the dangers facing American troops as they prepare to step up security operations in the capital and surrounding areas.
U.S. forces, meanwhile, said 18 insurgents were killed in fighting Thursday night and Friday after insurgents opened fire on the Americans from several positions in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. No civilian or U.S. casualties were reported in either attack, the military said.
Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar, has seen some of the bloodiest street battles of the war as Sunni insurgents remain well-entrenched in the city.
Iraqi officials in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, announced a three-day mourning period after Thursday's devastating suicide attack. Police and witnesses said the two bombers strolled into the central Maktabat market about 6 p.m. when the area was packed with shoppers buying food for the evening meal.
One of the bombers detonated his explosives when he was approached by police and the other blew himself up moments later, according to police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Khaled.
No group claimed responsibility, but many residents blamed Sunni insurgents. The Shiite city, located in a religiously mixed province, was the scene of one of Iraq's deadliest attacks — a February 2005 suicide car bombing that killed 125 people.
"I was walking on al-Maktabat Street and I noticed an explosion. I was hit by the first explosion. I fell on the ground and that is the reason that I was saved from the second explosion," one wounded man said from his hospital bed. "I ask God to save Iraqi from those Takfiri (Sunni extremist) traitors."
In violence Friday, a roadside bomb struck a police patrol in the northern city of Mosul, killing one officer, police said. But the capital was relatively calm amid a weekly three-hour vehicle ban to prevent car bombings.
Authorities also imposed a daytime vehicle ban Friday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf following last weekend's battle between Iraqi-U.S. troops and a messianic Shiite cult that left more than 200 people dead, said Ahmed Duaebil, spokesman for the Najaf province.
Much conflicting information has emerged about the cult — the "Soldiers of Heavan" — including several names for the so-called leader, who Iraqi authorities said was among those killed in the fighting.
Shiite cleric Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the cult leader was a member of Saddam Hussein 's feared security agency, the Mukhabarat.
He claimed the group was established in 1993 and supported by Saddam's ruling Baath Party to exploit internal rivalries among Shiites.
"What happened in Najaf represented an attempt to bring down the new situation in Iraq by occupying and bringing down the religious capital," al-Qubanji said during his Friday sermon in Najaf. "The Baath Party has been saving this person in order to create a Shiite-Shiite sedition."
He also said two other groups with offices in Najaf have adopted the same ideology as the cult and called upon security forces to keep them from plotting any similar attacks.