BAGHDAD (AP) â€” A US army Black Hawk helicopter crashed and killed all 12 Americans believed to be aboard, while five Marines died in weekend attacks.
The mounting death toll, about two-hundred Iraqis were killed and a dozen US troops were slain last week, came as Iraq’s politicians claimed headway in forming a stable coalition government following the December 15 elections â€” whose final results may be released this week.
Meanwhile, Iraqi police said 52-year-old kidnapped French engineer Bernard Planche was pushed out of a car near a checkpoint in a Baghdad suburb, apparently freed by nervous captors who then fled, Iraqi police said Sunday.
Planche, 52, was kidnapped on December 5 on his way to work at a water plant. Planche worked for a non-governmental organisation called AACCESS and was found Saturday night near the checkpoint in the Abu Ghraib neighbourhood. His captors had demanded the withdrawal from Iraq of nonexistent French troops.
The UH-60 Black Hawk crashed just before midnight Saturday about 15 kilometres east of Tal Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border that has in the past seen heavy fighting with insurgents.
“All are believed to be US citizens,” Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman, said.
He did not say what caused the crash, but bad weather has wracked most of Iraq.
The Black Hawk was part of a two-helicopter team proving support for the 101st Airborne Division and was moving between bases when communications were lost, the military said. After a search, the helicopter was found about noon Sunday, the military said.
The helicopter was part of Task Force Band of Brothers and attached to the 101st Aviation Brigade, but Maj. Tom Bryant, spokesman for the division’s 3rd Brigade, said the helicopter belonged to another unit.
“It was not from Fort Campbell,” he said, referring to the division’s American post.
Bryant could not say what unit the helicopter belonged to or whether there were any soldiers from the 101st aboard.
Master Sgt. Terry Webster, division public affairs, could not identify what unit operated the helicopter.
“As of right now, we’re treating it as a 101st bird,” Webster said. “We don’t want to get into any specifics.” It was the deadliest helicopter crash in Iraq since a CH-53 Sea Stallion crashed in bad weather in western Iraq on January 26, 2005, killing 31 US service members.
In Saturday’s crash, records indicated that eight passengers and four crew members were aboard.
Three Marines were killed Sunday by small arms attacks in Fallujah, 70 kilometres west of Baghdad, the military said. Two other Marines were killed Saturday by roadside bombs in separate incidents, the military said.
With the latest Marine deaths, at least 2,199 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. That toll did not include those killed aboard the Black Hawk.
In other violence Sunday, five people were killed in separate attacks in Baghdad, including a policeman killed by a suicide car bomber that targeted an interior ministry patrol. Seven others were wounded.
In Baghdad, the leader of Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political group said after meeting President Jalal Talabani that significant headway had been made in efforts to form a government of national unity.
“Talabani and I have an identical point of view regarding the formation of a national unity government based on consensus,” Adnan Dulaimi said.
Dulaimi confirmed that Iraq’s two Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Kurdistan regional president Massoud Barzani, have been mediating with other groups to form a coalition government.
Their efforts seem to have forged an understanding between the main Shiite religious bloc and Dulaimi’s group â€” which represent two traditionally hostile camps whose enmity often threatens to plunge Iraq into sectarian warfare.
Shiite leaders have in recent days threatened reprisals against the minority Sunni Arabs following twin suicide attacks that killed more than 100 people. They have blamed the attacks on both the Sunni-Arab-led insurgency and some political groups they say openly support the militants.
“This should be done by consensus for the sake of Iraq’s unity and independence. Barzani, Talabani and I agree on this condition, and this our sole condition and demand.” Dulaimi said.
Talabani said Saturday that Iraq’s political groups could form a coalition government within weeks â€” and some experts say the new government could be formed next month.
“Barzani and Talabani are conducting contacts with the Shiite Alliance and I think that the Alliance should agree on this project otherwise stability in Iraq cannot be achieved,” Dulaimi said of a broad-based government.
Forming a viable broad-based government is a key American goal in Iraq because such an administration, if it includes Sunni Arabs, could go a long way towards defusing the insurgency.
In an effort to help draw Sunni Arabs into the political process, as a way of dampening the violence, US officials for months have been communicating directly or through channels with members of the disaffected minority connected to the insurgency.
The Iraqi government also said it was talking directly to all militant groups who are willing to communicate, but no commitments have been made to any of them, said Wafiq Samarie, an adviser on security affairs to Talabani.
“Yes, many groups are communicating with us. We are listening to them and providing them with advice with open arms and transparency,” he said.
Samarie, a Sunni Arab and a former intelligence chief under Saddam Hussein, spoke to reporters after Talabani’s meeting with Dulaimi.
Sunni Arabs, however, expressed anger over a raid by US troops on the headquarters of the association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni clerical group.
The troops raided headquarters of the association, thought by some to be close to some insurgent groups, at Baghdad’s Umm Qura Mosque before dawn Sunday.
“The Americans bear the responsibility for this assault,” said Sheikh Younis Ekaidi. “This crime came as punishment for the association’s position on the occupation and its position on the latest elections.”
A US military official said the raid was conducted because of a tip from an Iraqi citizen that there was “significant terrorist related activity in the building” and six people were detained.
Insurgents have kidnapped more than 250 foreigners in the past two years, aiming to force US-led troops to leave Iraq or prevent Arab nations from strengthening their ties with the Baghdad government.
In other violence Sunday:
â€” Gunmen assassinated a member of former prime minster Iyad Allawi’s secular Shiite Iraqi National List in Baghdad, police 1st Lt. Mohammed Kheyoun said.
â€” A gunman was killed when clashes broke out between militants and Iraqi police, Maj. Musa Abdul Karim said.
â€” Militants opened fire on a vehicle in Baghdad, killing the driver, police Capt. Qasim Hussein said.
â€” Gunmen killed a policeman in western Baghdad, Capt. Qassim Hussein said.
â€” Police found six bodies, most shot in the head, at a sewage plant in southeast Baghdad.