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 Sunday, killing 16 soldiers and injuring 20 in the deadliest attack on American forces since the war began in March.
The helicopter was ferrying troops attached to the Army's 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 at about 9 a.m., the helicopter turned hard and crashed, sending smoke and flames high into the air, witnesses said.
"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."
Soldiers rushed from bases in the area to take their comrades to hospitals. At one base outside the nearby city of Fallouja -- a hot spot of Iraqi resistance to the American-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.... It was really touching to see everybody working together. I know [death is] just a fact of war," he said.
"There's been so much bad stuff happening since we got here," he added. "Soldiers dying, civilians dying, innocent or not."
"It just makes it worse that they were almost out of here," said Pvt. Misty Schreirer, a 23-year-old native 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 downing of the helicopter surpassed the deadliest attack during the war itself: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Sunday's strike began a bloody day for the U.S.-led occupation. Not far from the helicopter crash site, two U.S. contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers were killed by a roadside bomb. A third person was hurt. 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 Sunday. He was Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California. No other details were given, and the names of the other dead and wounded were withheld pending notification of relatives.
A spokesman for Ft. Carson, Colo., said two Chinooks were carrying soldiers from that base as well as Ft. Sill, Okla.; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; and Ft. Hood, Texas.
Lt. Col. Thomas Budzyna said some Ft. Carson troops were among the injured, but he did not know the units or bases of the other casualties.
"Many were looking forward to a break in the action," Budzyna said. "Unfortunately, they faced something else."
President Bush didn't comment on Sunday's high death toll, but Deputy White House Press Secretary Trent Duffy said the president received updates throughout the day.
"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 little more than a week. On Oct. 26, insurgents fired rockets at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where many coalition troops as well as American and British government staff members were staying, killing one U.S. soldier and injuring seven others. A day later, at least 35 people were killed and more than 200 injured when four car bombs exploded in the capital -- one at the International Committee of the Red Cross and the others at Iraqi police stations. Almost all the victims were Iraqis.
Sunday's strike was a victory for anti-American resistance fighters, who have been using shoulder-fired missiles against aircraft at Baghdad's airport, said officials with the U.S.-led coalition.
In the scattered houses around the crash site, farmers, most of whom make a subsistence living, watched the helicopter's wreckage with quiet satisfaction, almost as if they were honored that the resistance had chosen their area as a staging ground to strike.
Hamid Jassim was picking okra, a vegetable used in Iraqi stews, just a few hundred feet away 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 whose paternal uncle, the head of a powerful local clan, was detained by the Americans three weeks ago. "Neither George Bush's helicopters nor his airplanes nor his tanks are going to help him, because he has created an enemy out of the ordinary people."
Residents of the area say they expect American authorities to retaliate by detaining some of them but 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.
"Here people have a lot of pride. Once they feel violated and get in a rage, they don't care about life anymore, they just care about getting back at whoever violated them. This is not about Saddam Hussein, this is about occupation," he said.
The Chinook that crashed and the second one were ferrying troops to the Baghdad airport. The second flew unscathed. Both were flying at an altitude between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, said Carden, the public affairs officer.
Chinook helicopters are workhorses, hauling troops, supplies and artillery. They have had a history of serious mechanical defects, but perhaps more significant, they make 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 remains. Witnesses said the missile hit the tail of the aircraft as it flew east, suggesting that the missile used was a heat-seeker such as a Russian-made SA-7 or Strela, 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 was probably a shoulder-fired missile.
There are believed to be hundreds of SA-7s in Iraq that have not been accounted for by the Americans. The model and shoulder-fired variants are also readily available on the international market. A relatively new one can be purchased for between $20,000 and $100,000, according to international arms dealers. Older ones can cost as little as $5,000.
Although the copter was downed in an area in which Hussein loyalists are suspected of having extensive networks whose members could have launched the attack with a missile stolen from Iraq's arsenal at the end of the war, it has long been suspected Al Qaeda operatives also use such weapons.
Last November, a terrorist cell linked to Osama bin Laden's network fired two missiles at an Israeli charter flight with 271 people aboard as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles, fired just minutes after a suicide car-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in the city, were 30-year-old Russian Strelas. They missed their target.
Terrorists also fired a Strela at a U.S. plane leaving Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base in May 2002. That attack failed.
For Pvt. Matthew Tirpo, Sunday's tragedy brought home to mind.
"You think about the families more than anything else," said Tirpo, a soldier at Forward Operating Base St. Mere, where the injured soldiers were taken for treatment. "In this compound it's not really too dangerous ... but if I'm out in a Chinook, going to Baghdad international airport, I'll think twice."
Times staff writer David Lamb contributed to this report.