HUWAYSA, Iraq - Resistance fighters used a shoulder-fired missile to bring down a U.S. Chinook helicopter in the barley and wheat fields just west of the Euphrates River here yesterday, witnesses said, killing 16 soldiers and injuring 20 in the deadliest attack on American forces since they entered Iraq in March.
The helicopter was ferrying troops attached to the 82nd Airborne Division to Baghdad's international airport, where they were scheduled to fly home or to rest-and-recuperation breaks outside Iraq.
After the missile struck about 9 a.m., the helicopter turned hard and crashed, sending smoke and flames high into the air, witnesses said.
The New York Times reported that a senior American military official in Iraq confirmed that the helicopter had been downed by a missile that exploded in the engine compartment, saying the military did not yet know the type of missile used.
About 18 of the wounded soldiers were scheduled to arrive at Rammstein Air Base in Germany today, spokesman Maj. Mike Young said. They were to be brought to the nearby Landstuhl Medical Center for treatment. Although there were no details of their condition, generally only the seriously injured are transferred to Landstuhl.
"It's clearly a tragic day for America," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Fox News. "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."
"We have to be realistic," L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, told the Associated Press after learning of yesterday's heavy toll. "We're in a war here."
Soldiers rushed from bases to transport their comrades to hospitals. At one base outside the nearby city of Fallujah - a hot spot of Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led occupation - soldiers crowded the facility's hospital to help care for the wounded.
"It was a bad sight," said Spc. Michael Carden, who works in public affairs for the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade combat team. Although his job is to write about such events for a small army newspaper, Carden said he could not steel himself to do it.
"I couldn't bring myself to talk to anybody, but then I saw all the guys helping the wounded and bringing medical supplies, working as a team," he said. "It was really touching to see everybody working together. I know [death is] just a fact of war."
"It just makes it worse that they were almost out of here," said Pvt. Misty Schreirer, 23, of Knoxville, Tenn. "Today was pretty bad. ... You feel bad, of course, but you kind of get used to it."
The death toll in the apparent downing of the helicopter surpassed the deadliest attack during the war itself: the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine wounded and six captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Yesterday's strike began a bloody day for the U.S.-led occupation. Not far from the helicopter crash site, two American contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers were killed by a roadside bomb. A third person was injured. In Baghdad, a soldier with the 1st Armored Division died when his vehicle was struck by another roadside bomb.
U.S. authorities identified only one of the dead soldiers yesterday. He was Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California. No other details were given, and names of the other dead and wounded were withheld pending notification of relatives.
"We mourn the loss of all brave men and women in the military and elsewhere who pay the ultimate sacrifice to make the world safer and better," Duffy said.
The destruction of the Chinook was the third major attack in a week. On Oct. 26, insurgents fired rockets at the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where many coalition troops and U.S. and British government staff members were staying, killing an American colonel and injuring 15 other people.
A day later, at least 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when four car bombs exploded in the capital - one at the Red Cross headquarters and the others at Iraqi police stations. Almost all the victims were Iraqis.
Yesterday's strike was a victory for anti-American resistance fighters who have been using shoulder-fired missiles for the past several months to fire at aircraft near Baghdad's international airport, according to officials with the U.S.-led coalition.
Hamid Jassim was picking okra, a favorite Iraqi vegetable used in stews, just a few hundred feet from the crash site when he saw the helicopter's tail hit by the missile.
"I was very excited and very happy, because they told us they were here to free us but they are here to occupy us," he said.
The Americans have done nothing to improve their impoverished lives, said villagers who complained about intrusive searches and mass detentions by U.S. soldiers.
Residents said they wanted an end to the American presence. The attacks, they said, will speed up their departure.
"When you have someone invading your country, they won't leave unless they see considerable resistance," said Mohammed Abid, a farmer in the area.
People in the area say they expect U.S. authorities to retaliate by detaining some of them in the aftermath of the missile attack, but they say that such tactics will only backfire.
"Each time they detain a person, then that person has a family and the Americans make a whole bunch of new enemies," said farmer Magid Mohammed, 25.
The Chinook that crashed yesterday was one of two ferrying troops to the Baghdad airport. The second escaped unscathed. Both aircraft were flying at 1,000 to 1,500 feet, said Carden, the public affairs officer.
Chinook helicopters are workhorses of the U.S. military, hauling troops, supplies and artillery. The helicopters have had a history of serious mechanical defects. Perhaps more significant to the attacks yesterday, they are large targets and have limited maneuverability compared with smaller, faster helicopters.
"After this, I'm sure they'll fly higher; we don't want this to happen again," said one soldier near the scene.
Black Hawk helicopters were used to evacuate the injured. Hours after the crash, helicopters still circled low over the area, occasionally landing at the site near the Chinook's mangled metal remains.
Witnesses said the missile hit the tail of the aircraft as it flew eastward, suggesting that the type of weapon used was a heat-seeking missile such as the Russian-made SA-7s, or Strelas, which were widely available to the Iraqi military during Hussein's regime. Military sources could not confirm that an SA-7 hit the Chinook, but said the weapon likely was some type of shoulder-fired missile.
There are believed to be hundreds of SA-7s in Iraq's arsenal that have not been accounted for by the Americans. The model and other shoulder-fired variations are readily available on the international market. A relatively new shoulder-fired missile can be bought for $20,000 to $100,000, international arms dealers say. Older ones can cost as little as $5,000.
Although the helicopter was downed in an area where former regime loyalists are suspected of having extensive networks and where they could well have launched the attacks with missiles stolen from Iraq's arsenal at the end of the war, it has long been suspected that al-Qaida operatives also use the weapon.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.