(MOSUL, Iraq, Sunday, November 17, 2003)-- The U.S. military on Sunday was investigating whether insurgent groundfire caused the crash of two U.S. helicopters, killing 17 American soldiers, the worst single loss of U.S. life since the start of the Iraq war.
Five soldiers were injured and one was missing after the Saturday crash.
The two Black Hawks, which belonged to the 101st Airborne Division, went down in residential neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.
The spokesman for the 101st Airborne, Maj. Trey Cate, said the military was "trying to figure out what happened.... We are going to do a thorough investigation because if this either involved ground fire or it was safety-related, then ... we're going to make sure we take precautions so it won't happen again."
The chief military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. William M. Darley, said the cause of the crash "will be under intense investigation today."
A statement by the U.S. command said one helicopter was carrying a quick reaction force and the other ferried soldiers on a transport mission in northern Iraq. Cate said the quick response team was on its way to investigate a shooting incident in which a U.S. soldier was injured.
The statement did not give the cause of the crash.
An Iraqi policeman in Mosul, however, said at least one of the Black Hawks was hit by ground fire.
"They hit it with a missile," said policeman Saddam Abdel Sattar. "I was in the army, I know these things."
Another witness, Yousra Khedr said she saw one helicopter above her house before hearing the sound of a loud boom.
"I saw the sky light up, it was like thunder and lightning," she said, adding that after the initial boom she heard gunfire in the area but could not say where it came from.
One soldier at the scene told The Associated Press he heard that one of the helicopters was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade before it crashed. A U.S. military spokesman said such reports were "at best speculative."
Another witness said he heard gunfire on the ground before the crashed.
"The Black Hawks were in the air and there was shooting (on the ground). It was dark and one slammed into the other," said an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldier who identified himself only as Mahmoud.
By Sunday morning, soldiers were busy clearing the rubble at the two crash sites. Two cranes were being towed in to help the clean up operation.
Cate said the military was still removing bodies of soldiers from the site.
According to Cate, one helicopter had 12 soldiers on board; seven were killed and five injured. The other had 10 aboard; all were killed.
Before the crash, the U.S. military's deadliest incident was the downing of a Chinook transport helicopter on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. A Black Hawk was also shot down on Nov. 7, killing all six soldiers on board.
There were days early in the war in which more soldiers died, but they were spread over several attacks or accidents.
Violence in the area continued on Sunday. A roadside bomb exploded in Mosul, hitting an Iraqi minibus, slightly injuring four people, Iraqi police said. There were no U.S. troops in the area of the blast.
The crash put the number of American casualties since the March invasion at 417.
On Saturday, the Iraqi Governing Council endorsed a U.S. plan that would create a provisional government by June. The transfer of power would provide Washington with an "exit strategy" in the face of escalating guerrilla warfare.
The plan reflected Washington's desire to speed up the handover of power as attacks against American occupation forces grow more sophisticated and deadly. The Bush administration dropped its insistence that a constitution be drawn up and elections held before the transfer takes places. However, one of the 24 members of Iraq's Governing Council warned that "execution of the plan won't be easy" without improvement in the security situation and a revival of Iraq's economy.
And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned Sunday that the accelerated plan for restoring Iraqi self-rule does not mean U.S. troops will withdraw anytime soon.
"The timetable or the way ahead that the (Iraqi) Governing Council has been describing relates to the governance aspects of the country and not to the security aspects," he said. "That's on a separate track
The council, which has acted as Iraq's interim administration since it was appointed in July, announced a set of deadlines that would give Iraq a provisional national assembly by May, a transitional administration with full sovereign powers in June and an elected government before the end of 2005.
With the return of sovereignty in June, the U.S. military occupation will formally end, although American forces are expected to remain in Iraq under a new arrangement to be worked out with the Iraqis.
Until a constitution is drafted and adopted, a basic law will be promulgated by the Governing Council and take effect in February.
The law, according to an official statement, would establish a democratic and federal state that "respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people with the guarantee of the right of other religions and sects."
It will enshrine respect for human rights and ensure equality of members of the country's diverse religious and ethnic groups.