Chopper downed in Iraq, attacked on ground

By PAMELA HESS, Pentagon correspondent  |  Jan. 2, 2004 at 1:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Five gunmen masquerading as reporters attacked U.S. soldiers guarding an 82nd Airborne Division Kiowa helicopter that was shot down by insurgent fighters near Fallujah Friday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the spokesman for American forces in Iraq, said at a Baghdad press briefing on Friday.

One soldier died and one was wounded in the initial crash, which occurred around 12:20 pm local time. No one was injured in the subsequent attack.

The gunmen arrived on the scene at around 2 p.m. local time in two Mercedes cars, one black and one dark blue. Wearing black jackets "clearly marked 'press' in English' the men fired on soldiers guarding the crash site with small arms and rocket propelled grenades, according to Kimmitt.

One of the cars was traced back to a building where four men were arrested.

It was the first time insurgents have masqueraded as journalists in Iraq, according to Kimmitt. However, U.S. forces have fired on journalists, mistaking them for enemy fighters. One Reuters cameraman was shot dead near the Abu Gharib prison Aug. 17 while he was filming the aftermath of a mortar attack.

Al-Qaida members pretending to be journalists in Afghanistan killed the leader of the Northern Alliance in September 2001 by hiding a bomb in a videocamera.

Also Friday, three U.S. soldiers were wounded, two seriously, when an improvised explosive device was detonated east of Ramadi. Gunmen then attacked a 5,000-gallon fuel truck in the convoy with small arms and rocket propelled grenades, setting the truck on fire.

Both Fallujah and Ramadi are in the so-called Sunni Triangle, strongholds of Baathists and Saddam loyalists who benefited most from his regime. Both towns are believed to be headquarters for smuggling and crime gangs as well as former regime fighters.

Separately, a five-ton truck traveling south of Lake Habbaniyah towards Baghdad International Airport flipped on its side, injuring six soldiers and killing one. Two of the injured are in the hospital.

On Thursday, a unit of the 82nd Airborne captured a man alleged to be a key figure in the insurgency trying to cross the border into Syria, according to a Pentagon official. "Abu Mohammed" -- a common nickname in Iraq meaning "father of Mohammed" -- is alleged to move large sums of cash and foreign fighters throughout western Iraq. U.S. soldiers stopped him in a taxi about 200 yards from the border. They also captured three others people, small arms and documents that may be linked to Abu Mohammed.

Also on Thursday, coalition forces and Iraqi police and civil defense forces searched the Al Tabul mosque in Baghdad, based on intelligence the building was being used for "criminal and terrorist activities, according to Kimmitt. U.S. soldiers found a large quantity of weapons, explosives and ammunition and arrested 32 people, including several that may be foreign fighters.

Also arrested was a cleric, Sheik Mahdi Sumaidi. Sumaidi is believed by U.S. intelligence to be the senior leader of the Salafist movement in the region, Salafists are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who count Shiite Muslims -- the majority in Iraq -- on its list of enemies, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Michael Doran.

Kimmitt denied allegations that American soldiers ripped pages from a holy Koran during the operation.

"There is no evidence to support that. And the coalition forces have been asked that specific question, and all deny taking any activities against some of the artifacts inside the mosque," Kimmitt said.

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