BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. command has ordered changes in flight operations after four helicopters were shot down in the last two weeks, the chief military spokesman said Sunday, acknowledging for the first time that the aircraft were lost to hostile fire.
The crashes, which began Jan. 20, follow insurgent claims that they have received new stocks of anti-aircraft weapons — and a recent boast by Sunni militants that "God has granted new ways" to threaten U.S. aircraft. Al-Jazeera aired video late Sunday showing one of the U.S. helicopters being hit in central Iraq and said it came from an insurgent Web site.
All four helicopters were shot down during a recent increase in violence, which an Interior Ministry official said has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in the past week alone. At least 103 people were killed or found dead Sunday, most of them in Baghdad, police reported.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes of three Army and one private helicopters were incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."
It was the first time a senior figure in the U.S. Iraq command had said publicly that all four helicopters were shot down.
Despite the losses, Caldwell said it was premature to conclude that the threat to U.S. aircraft posed by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen had increased dramatically.
"There's been an ongoing effort since we've been here to target our helicopters," Caldwell said. "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."
Caldwell did not elaborate, presumably for security reasons. In the past, defensive measures have included flying lower and faster, varying routes and using zigzag patterns over dangerous areas.
Three crashed in mostly Sunni areas and the fourth was shot down during fighting with Shiite cultists near Najaf. U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing sophisticated weapons to Shiite militants.
In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath party, Khudair al-Murshidi, told The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, that Sunni insurgents had received shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and "we are going to surprise them," meaning U.S. forces.
Al-Murshidi did not say when or how the missiles were obtained.
Insurgents have used SA-7s, a shoulder-fired missile with an infrared homing device, against U.S. and British aircraft since 2003.
In an Internet statement, the Al Qaeda-affilated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the latest crash — an Apache Longbow helicopter that went down Friday north of Baghdad, killing two crew members.
"We tell the enemies of God that the airspace of the Islamic State in Iraq is prohibited to your aircraft just like its lands are," the statement said. "God has granted new ways for the soldiers of the State of Iraq to confront your aircraft."
It was unclear whether the "new ways" referred to new and advanced anti-aircraft weapons — such as SA-18 missiles — or was simply a boast.
U.S. military helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors and devices to jam radar and infrared technology, but they have proven vulnerable to intense gunfire, as well as rocket-propelled grenades.
Al-Jazeera showed a grainy 15-second video, filmed from the ground, which showed a helicopter plunging with a trail of black smoke emanating from it. It said the video was of the Apache hit Friday near Taji in central Iraq. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified.
The crashes have occurred in the run-up to the new U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown, in which an additional 21,500 American troops and about 8,000 Iraqi soldiers are being sent mostly to Baghdad in another bid to quell sectarian violence.
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, a Shiite named to lead the crackdown, will take charge Monday and the operation will begin "very soon thereafter," U.S. adviser Col. Douglass Heckman said.
On Sunday, an Interior Ministry official said about 1,000 Iraqis — including civilians, security forces and gunmen — had been killed in the last week alone. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figures.
Figures tallied by The Associated Press from police and government statements put the death toll from Jan. 28 until Saturday at 911.
That included 137 people killed Saturday in a massive truck bombing in the mostly Shiite Sadriyah market in central Baghdad. The explosion was fifth major bombing in less than a month against Shiite targets in Baghdad and Hillah.
It was also the deadliest in the capital since a string of car bombs and mortars killed at least 215 people in the Shiite district of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
Public anger over the attack welled up during a meeting Sunday between a delegation of Sadriyah residents and Iraqi parliament members. The head of the delegation, Talib Nawrouz, demanded that the government implement the new security plan quickly to end the bloodshed.
"We demand the government start the new security plan, implement the counter terrorism law, and support the families specially the injuries" he added.
Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, expressed condolences and told the delegation that the bombing showed "what the future will be like if those terrorists take power."
But Caldwell, the military spokesman, urged Iraqis to be patient, warning that the upcoming crackdown would not improve security overnight.
"People must be patient. Give the government and coalition forces a chance to fully implement it. It will take some time for additional Iraqi and U.S. forces to be deployed," Caldwell said.