An Iraqi military helicopter crashed in a sandstorm, killing the seven Iraqis and one American service member on board, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Tuesday.
The crash was a blow to the Iraqi military’s efforts to rebuild its air force, which was devastated during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and never recovered.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry said two Russian-built MI-17 transport helicopters were ferrying troops from the northern city of Tall Afar to Baghdad on Monday when they encountered bad weather south of Baiji.
One aircraft was able to avoid the storm, but the other crashed, said Mohammed Askari, a ministry spokesman.
The last reported contact with the aircraft was at 2:40 p.m. Monday, the U.S. military said in a statement.
American search and rescue teams found the wreckage just before noon Tuesday in the largely desert region between Baiji and Tharthar Lake.
“Recovery operations have been completed and there were no survivors,” the statement said.
Askari said the helicopter was piloted by an Iraqi and a foreigner, but did not specify the latter’s nationality.
The U.S. military later confirmed the latter was an American.
All six passengers were Iraqis, Askari said.
He blamed the weather for the crash, but the U.S. statement said the cause remained under investigation. Names of the victims were withheld pending notification of their families.
It was the worst helicopter crash since a U.S. Black Hawk went down during night maneuvers in northern Iraq on Aug. 22, killing all 14 troops on board.
At least 3,974 U.S. personnel have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Iraq’s air force was once one of the largest in the Middle East and a source of national pride during the 1980-88 war with Iran. But most of it was destroyed during the 1991 war.
The United States is helping Iraq rebuild the air force to support counterinsurgency operations. So far, the tiny fleet of planes and helicopters is used primarily for surveillance and to transport troops and supplies.
Last month, Iraqi Huey II helicopters were used to help secure the routes used by Shiite Muslim pilgrims walking to Karbala for a major religious festival and received waves from the people below.